On a scale of 1 to 10—with 1 being totally passive and 10 being absolutely active—where would you rank Mary’s performance in the Annunciation narrative? On the one hand, the angel takes the initiative, does most of the talking, and seems to decide when the encounter begins and ends. Mary didn’t come up with this plan, she doesn’t negotiate any of the terms, and something is done to her. Sure seems like sheer passivity. On the other hand, she does say “yes”, so maybe there’s some traces of activity here, though perhaps not as much as one would like.
In truth, no matter where you’d place Mary between 1 and 10, you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because the light of Christian discipleship does not bend to that spectrum and Mary herself is the revelation of a Christian disciple in all her brilliance.
Is there passivity? Yes, and it’s total. Is there activity? Yes, and it’s total, too. Mary is a paradox because she embodies what we might call “willed-passivity” or “active-obedience”, which disposes her to harmony with divine freedom rather than what we otherwise want to see, which is something like “freedom” as autonomy, maybe even rebellion. But especially in the Gospel of Luke, the explicit definition of a disciple is the one “who hears the word of God and acts on it” (Luke 8:21; 11:28), and before Luke ever writes these words, he paints a portrait of the complete disciple in Jesus’s mother. Later he shows how the transformation into discipleship follows the pattern first established in her.
Mary is a paradox because she embodies what we might call “willed-passivity” or “active-obedience”, which disposes her to harmony with divine freedom rather than what we otherwise want to see, which is something like “freedom” as autonomy, maybe even rebellion.
How do we learn what true freedom is in Mary, the paradigmatic Christian disciple? By paying attention to how she listened and how she acted, focusing mostly on the Annunciation narrative.
I would need quite a number of words to give us a truly satisfactory account of the astonishing amount of activity hidden under Mary’s disciplined passivity when the angel brought the word of God to her. Rather than trying to squeeze all those words in here I only want to point in the direction of where the full demonstration of her freedom lies. Consider this a sort of down-payment on what is actually the basis of my forthcoming book, What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life’s Big Decisions.
Hearing the Word of God…
Mary is the one who “hears the word of God and acts on it,” completely and fully. Discipleship is first disciplined receiving and then bold acting. The first side happens with patience, the second with haste. Imagine an archer’s bow that is drawn back slowly and carefully, only to be released suddenly with great force and purpose—that is a fairly apt image of Mary of Nazareth, disciple.
At first blush, we might consider hearing to be a wholly passive endeavor. If you clap your hands and I hear it, something just happened to me—I didn’t do anything. But if you tell me how you’re feeling, do I automatically hear you? Like, really hear you? Though it’s a bit cliché, my wife certainly knows the difference between sound passing into my ears and me really hearing what she’s saying. Mary hears the way a lover hears: with effort, care, openness, and a will to wait upon full understanding.
Beginning with her very first action in the Gospel of Luke, Mary shows herself to be one who is free to wait and strong enough to continually resist the temptation to rush to judgment. In the Annunciation narrative, the angel speaks in three parts, with three responses from Mary following each. The final response is the most famous, but the first response sets the tone, even though it is a response given in total silence. When the angel hails her, Mary is “greatly agitated and considers in her mind what kind of greeting this might be” (1:29). We can see the significance of this if we do what Luke the Evangelist is begging us to do: to read Mary’s narrative alongside the one that comes immediately before it, which is the angel’s announcement to Zechariah. In that narrative, Zechariah’s first response—also in silence—is to be “overcome with fear” (1:12). With each of them Luke wants us to note their respective dispositions: Zechariah immediately becomes a slave to fear, while Mary is free to encounter this strange new thing.
Zechariah immediately becomes a slave to fear, while Mary is free to encounter this strange new thing.
This contrast between the two of them continues when they each speak to ask a question. These sound like basically the same question, but the form of the question changes everything. Zechariah asks “How can I know this?” (1:18) while Mary asks “How can this be?” (1:34). Zechariah wants to pull the situation on to his terms; he wants to control what’s going on; he basically says “prove it to me.” Mary gives the benefit of the doubt; she is willing to trust; she stretches herself towards what is happening, even though it is unsettling. For Zechariah, he is the center of gravity; for Mary, she allows the word being spoken to hold the center. (My wife could tell you something about this difference, too, from her nearly 14 years of being married to me.)
It is pretty typical for people to be confused as to why Zechariah ends up getting punished while Mary is exalted. The reason lies in their respective approaches to the angel’s announcement. Zechariah is not able to listen—he can’t really hear—and so he is incapable of speaking well. The angel strikes him mute so that the only thing he can do is the very thing he needs to learn how to do: listen. When he speaks again after the birth of his son, his words are full of praise. He’s begun to hear the Word of God.
Mary doesn’t just start off hearing in a trusting and open way, she actually never stops. Throughout the Infancy Narratives in the first two chapters of this Gospel, that deep listening becomes her defining characteristics. Luke calls it “pondering”, which means letting the word enter into the depths of her heart, where it will make impressions like lunar craters. She ponders what the shepherds tell her about the angelic announcement they’ve heard (2:19). The priest Simeon tells her that her heart will be pierced for her child (2:35). She ponders what her son says about staying in the Temple to do his Father’s will (2:51). She ponders everything about this boy: the Word who took flesh in her.
The sound of the Word does not just pass into her ears, she welcomes it into her heart. She hears in a way that no one overcome with fear, or under the control of their own impulses, or lusting for control would ever be able to. She is free to receive.
She hears in a way that no one overcome with fear, or under the control of their own impulses, or lusting for control would ever be able to.
…And Acting On It
Once Mary hears well, she then acts in haste. What is the importance of haste? Well, have you wondered about what to do in a particular situation when suddenly you just know what the right thing is? What might happen if you don’t do that thing right away, especially if it is a costly thing to do like forgiving someone, or sacrificing something, or making a big change in your life? What might happen is that, if you dally, you will start to become less certain of the action. It isn’t that you necessarily second guess yourself, but more that you start finding reasons to not do that one thing, especially if it’s a hard thing to do. Justifications start creeping in for doing something else, or doing nothing at all. A doctor is unwise if she operates before she knows what’s wrong with her patient, and unwise again if she doesn’t do what needs to be done when she completes the diagnosis. Mary’s no coward; she acts in haste.
We see this first, of course, when she rushes off to the hill country to her cousin Elizabeth right after the angel departs from her. We are told that she went “with haste” (1:39). She is ready to respond to the word of God, held back by nothing. Again, she’s free.
How free is she? Well, if we step outside of Luke’s Gospel for a moment and move into John’s, we are given an image of just how much freedom Mary exercises when she has everything to lose. Unique to John’s Gospel, those who are closest to Jesus are next to him while he is on the cross (in the synoptic Gospels, they are all off at some distance). At the foot of the cross is a small company that includes the beloved disciple and Jesus’s mother. Upon that cross is the child Mary was promised, the one whom she received when she trusted in God’s word, the one for whom she had sacrificed control of her life. He is the one she was promised. And what does he say to her? He tells her to take another as her son. In this most urgent moment, when the temptation to grasp her son is at its greatest, she exercises the power to let him go and to receive the one he gives her. If we haven’t prayed about Mary’s sacrifice on Calvary, then we’ve missed something.
In this most urgent moment, when the temptation to grasp her son is at its greatest, she exercises the power to let him go and to receive the one he gives her. If we haven’t prayed about Mary’s sacrifice on Calvary, then we’ve missed something.
In hearing the Word of God, Mary displayed the freedom from fear, presumption, and pride. In acting on the Word, Mary displays the freedom for making a sacrifice, taking responsibility, and bearing the cost of love. When she said “let it be to me according to your word” (1:38), she followed through on that “yes”, all the way to the end. Power like borders on the divine.
(What I Didn’t Say)
For the sake of time, I didn’t touch on Mary’s memory (which is part of her hearing) or her prophecy (which is part of her action). Again, this and much more about the pattern of discipleship Mary establishes in the Annunciation and thereafter is the basis of my book What Matters Most. But as one more little down-payment and in order to make the last point I want to make below, I so want to say something about these two things.
Mary’s memory is filled with Scripture. This is how the angel’s words become meaningful to her (and why Zechariah is deaf to the same words). For example, when the angel proclaims to her that Elizabeth, who is old and barren, is with child, she recognizes in this the sign of the only other person in Scripture who bears those marks: Sarah, Abraham’s wife. She recognizes that what began in Sarah is now complete in Elizabeth. That was the last thing she heard before she said “yes”; in other words, she knew who she was saying “yes” to.
As for her prophecy, notice how in the angel’s second address to her (1:30–33), he speaks of her child Jesus in terms of power. He’s a king, the son of the Most High no less, who will have an unending kingdom. And yet, when Mary herself speaks in the Magnificat, she proclaims the power of her son not as the world conceives of power, but rather as that false power’s undoing. In receiving the word of God, she acts according to the true measure of divine power: mercy. This is the power that would rather suffer the consequences of a power-hungry world than play its game.
Which Brings me to the Wannabes on the Road to Emmaus
I wanted to include those two extra bits even though I couldn’t hardly develop them in order to show this one last thing. If we look to the end of the Luke’s Gospel, we see that Jesus encounters two would-be disciples walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus (24:13–35). They are disoriented and going in the wrong direction. They know a lot but they don’t know how to make sense of things. They’re awfully chatty and don’t listen very much. Their hope is in the past tense. And what does Jesus do to them and for them: he transforms them into disciples according to the pattern already established in his blessed mother. He silences them: “O foolish men…” (24:25). He reconfigures their memories by teaching them the Scriptures aright: “beginning with Moses and all the prophets…” (24:27). He teaches them how true power—divine power—comes as mercy by schooling them in his own suffering: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things…” (24:26). And finally, he feeds them with himself—the Word made flesh—and frees them to take on a new mission of great joy, with haste: “And they rose at once…” (24:33). They become what Mary is: ones who hear the Word of God and act on it.
The [disciples] become what Mary is: ones who hear the Word of God and act on it.
Like those disoriented, confused, chatty, and sad wanderers whom Jesus transformed into missionary disciples, Mary is for all Christians and would-be Christians both the image of discipleship into which we shall be transformed and the embodiment of the dispositions in which we must be tutored in order to become fully human and fully open to the Word of God, ready to act on it.
Mary can’t be ranked between passivity and activity because she breaks the mold. She is the scale on which all maturing disciples are measured, while also being the one who never ceases to pray for those whom her son claims as his own. Her “yes” never ends as she always receives the ones to whom her son directs her, and she acts in mercy for them, with great haste.