This feast always makes me think of St. Bernadette Soubirous.
As you’ll remember, the Virgin Mary appeared to her in one of the last apparitions at Lourdes, and said, in the local patois, "I am the Immaculate Conception." This was in 1858, four years after Pope Pius IX had proclaimed the Marian doctrine. And when she heard Mary say this, Bernadette ran to the local priest, to tell him. The priest had asked for the vision to give a name, and this was the answer. But Bernadette had no idea what it meant and so had to repeat it over and over, on her way, lest she forget.
Sometimes I feel that way about this doctrine. I believe it, but find it hard to understand, and worry if I’ll be able to explain it in the right way, so that others will understand it.
The Gospel, though, seems somewhat clearer. For one thing, the Annunciation, at least to me, perfectly describes the arc of a spiritual relationship with God.
As in our own lives, the first step is God taking the initiative. In any spiritual experience, it is God who makes the first step, with his grace. Second, it can be frightening to experience God directly, to have the "Creator deal directly with the creature," as St. Ignatius Loyola said. And we may be afraid, and need reassurance, like Mary. "Do not be afraid," says the angel, for good reason. Third, we may wonder how we will be able to accept what God asks of us. And so we question like Mary does, in perfect honesty. Fourth, in response we are often reminded--through prayer, through conversations with friends, through spiritual direction--to cast our mind backwards and look at what God has already done. That’s what the Angel says to Mary, "Look at your cousin Elizabeth." If you’re wondering what God can do, look at what God has already accomplished in your life. Fifth, we say yes, as Mary does, in perfect freedom. Finally, God brings something new to life within us, for our good and the good of the world.
But what happens before and after the story, I think, also can speak to us as Christians. Mary’s ability to hear the word of God in the first place depended upon her having a listening heart. She had to be attentive, aware, awake. Patient, even. She had to have the stance that characterizes the contemplative, and which characterizes the saints. That’s one reason that saints are often pictured with shells over their heads. They listen to our prayers. But they hear God’s voice first.
And what happens in the story’s final line? The angel leaves her. That particular encounter with God, at that moment, ends. Who knows how long it was before Mary had as profound an experience with God? When the angel leaves, Mary is left to do the hardest part of all, to be faithful to her call, as we are. Even after a powerful experience in prayer or on retreat, we must carry it out. This is the time for faith.
So like the Blessed Mother, and like St. Bernadette, we’re called to be attentive, to listen and to act, even if we may not entirely understand where things will lead or how we might accomplish them, trusting that God will lead us and God will bring every yes to fulfillment.
James Martin, SJ