Scripture begins with the story of a man and a woman saying a definitive “no” to their creator, rejecting not only God’s one direction to them (don’t eat the fruit!), but also rejecting their Creator Himself. It’s fitting, therefore, that our redemption really takes shape as a woman and then a man make the opposite choice: accepting wholeheartedly and without reservation the will of God. And so, in response to the invitation issued to her through the Archangel Gabriel, Mary gives this yes, her fiat, in no uncertain terms:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” -Luke 1:38
St. Dominic used this as the first of fifteen mysteries – fifteen key moments in the Gospels – that he would preach on and invite people to meditate on with an Our Father and ten Hail Mary’s, creating the essence of the Rosary we pray today. We not only celebrate this event on March 25th – not coincidentally nine months before Christmas – but we also profess our belief in it every time we pray the creed, affirming that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin.
It is, much like our belief in the Eucharist, an audacious claim. Virgins don’t have babies – we try to explain this to teens and young adults all the time, explaining that the surest way to neither get pregnant nor contract an STI is to practice abstinence. Yet at the center of our faith is this belief that a virgin did in fact conceive a child – and not just any child, but the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. What gives?
Well it was prophesied by Isaiah eight centuries before the birth of Christ:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” -Isaiah 7:14
Scripture is full of miraculous births to parents who were barren: people like Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and Elkanah, and Zechariah and Elizabeth. In these and other circumstances, these children are given with a particular mission: Isaac, the child of the promise, the prophet Samuel, and John the Baptist, respectively. Each one plays a key part in the history of our faith. In the case of His Son, however, God chose a way that would make him stand out: selecting a woman who, it would seem, had chosen virginity as a way of life. Consider the question she poses the angel: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). She’s engaged and about to be married. In most normal situations, the prophecy of a coming child would simply make sense. But for Mary, who may very well be a precursor of those religious who still today consecrate themselves to God (virginity and all), there would be no reason to be expecting a child in a marriage she intended to keep chaste. And while this sounds crazy, it provides God with a means to set the birth of Christ apart from that of any of these other key biblical features.
Mary, for her part, was not only accepting to be an “incubator” for the Christ child, but first to place her life completely in God’s hands (to become pregnant at this time might have subjected her to a public stoning) and to allow this reality to set the course for her life. God’s intention for Mary was not some sort of cosmic one-night stand, but rather for her to be the new Eve who would fulfill the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, helping set in to motion those events which would crush the head of the serpent – the power of evil – once and for all. Jesus was the new Adam who would not this time fail, as the first Adam did, to protect His beloved Bride and succumb to temptation.
There is much that can be said about Catholic beliefs surrounding Mary. Suffice it to say that we see her first, like a Tabernacle within whom dwelt the Holy of Holies – Christ Himself – and who was therefore prepared to be a worthy dwelling for Him (the Immaculate Conception, the belief Mary was conceived without sin.) We believe that her yes to God, her fiat, was not just given at the moment of the Annunciation, but with every action of her life (Mary, ever-virgin.) We believe that what she did first at Cana – directing the stewards to do whatever Christ said (cf John 2:5) is what she does for all eternity: pointing us to Christ and asking us to do whatever He says. Finally, we trust that she, with a maternal care, continues to serve the mission of salvation, praying for us both now and at the hour of our death. Mary is the exemplary Christian, the one who hears God’s call and then makes Jesus present in the world.
Be clear here: Catholic devotion to Mary does not make her supersede who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. In a role that was prepared for her before birth and accepted by her at the annunciation, we are invited to contemplate the seemingly audacious ways in which He chooses to save us. We can be grateful for the open, generous heart demonstrated by this young Hebrew girl whose yes echoes through the generations to you and I.
“Indeed, at the Annunciation Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with the “full submission of intellect and will,” manifesting “the obedience of faith” to him who spoke to her through his messenger. She responded, therefore, with all her human and feminine “I,” and this response of faith included both perfect cooperation with “the grace of God that precedes and assists” and perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, who “constantly brings faith to completion by his gifts” -John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater 13