At the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel told Our Blessed Lady that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Messiah Mary asked how this could come about since she was a virgin. We have become so familiar with the account of the Annunciation that we have stopped being puzzled by the Blessed Virgin’s reply.
The Archangel already knew she was a virgin, so Mary couldn’t have been telling the Angel anything new. Also it could have been God’s plan that the child be conceived in a natural way as it was with John the Baptist and many other births in the Old Testament. But this doesn’t seem to have been the issue. Rather what was at stake was that Mary had consecrated herself to God as a young girl and she was wondering how her consecration as a virgin could be fulfilled if she was to be a mother. We see in her query to the Archangel one who is open to God’s plan, she is not doubting what God can do, she is simply asking how as a consecrated virgin she could also be a mother.
In his encyclical on Love Pope Benedict XVI writes beautifully about Mary and her interior disposition before God. Mary’s understanding of her relationship with God brings us to the very heart of what it means to be a consecrated person. Pope emeritus writes that the whole programme of Mary’s life was not to set herself at the centre, but leaving space for God, who is encountered both in prayer and in service of neighbour. Only then, Pope Benedict says, does goodness enter the world. “Mary’s greatness consists in the fact that she wants to glorify God, not herself. She is lowly: her only desire is to be the handmaid of the Lord (cf. Lk 1:38, 48). She knows that she will only contribute to the salvation of the world if, rather than carrying out her own projects, she places herself completely at the disposal of God’s initiatives”.
Mary handed herself over completely to God and in this she finds true freedom and happiness. So often freedom is presented to us as a freedom to do as we desire and therefore we must expel God from our lives. Mary challenges this false notion of freedom and in her life teaches us that true freedom is only found by making God the ground of our lives and the centre of our stories.
Men and women religious in the Church endeavour to show us the same response to God. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in answer to God’s love for them and by freely placing God at the centre of their lives. They love Him more than anyone else in chastity, they treasure Him more than anything else in poverty and they love Him even more than they love their own plans and decisions for their lives in obedience. In this way they are an invaluable witness in the Church of the call each Christian has of placing love of God at the centre of their lives.
It is the role of consecrated people to confront this secular age with the reality of God. They challenge any comfortable cultural expressions of spirituality or sentimentality. Religious in the Church of today, as religious have always meant to be in the life of the Church, take God seriously and believing in God placing themselves completely at the disposal of God’s initiatives. Mary stands as the great model of this life-choice and she is for all consecrated persons a powerful advocate in their determination to make Christ their whole lives.
Fr. John M. Harris, O.P. St. Saviour’s Dublin.