If God just made a “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all” kind of selection in choosing Jesus’ mother, then Mary is so far beyond our experience that there is no point in pondering her response to God. She was just a superior sort of being. But if it is God’s grace–the Holy Spirit at work in her–that made her favored, then the story reads very differently. For then God formed and equipped the vessel that he used.
If it is true that God initiated his love and favor toward Mary, then what is Mary’s part in “may it be to me according to your word?” Does God’s favor replace the need for a truly human response? Is Mary’s “yes” the rather robotic response of a woman who was never tempted to say “no?” If that were true, what would be “human” about this human mother who gave the world’s Savior his human flesh and blood, who taught the Word his first words?
When I need refreshment in pondering this dance of God’s loving initiative and Mary’s receptive response, I often turn to the works of Catholic theologian Han Urs von Balthasar. As the Preface to my current book, The Threefold Garland, begins, “to read most any work of Hans Urs von Balthasar is to plunge into a bright ocean where the most familiar truths and events of faith take on a splendor usually hidden from our dull vision.” Amen.
And my dull vision is again cleared as I ponder Von Balthasar’s description of Mary’s obedience at quiet center of the world’s turning we call the annunication. He writes, “In so far as [her obedience] connotes the renunciation of autonomous decisions, obedience is passivity; but insofar as it is the readiness to receive everything, obedience is supreme activity.”
A profound definition of receptivity: the renunciation of autonomous decisions and the readiness to receive everything. Von Balthasar helps me see Mary again not as some distant being, but as a true mentor who, in her own deep response to God, quietly challenges my own.
The natural default drive of my soul really likes autonomy. Even when I come to the point of renouncing my autonomy from God, there are still God’s people to be faced. And, oh, how I sometimes long to be autonomous from community. But Mary’s “renunciation of autonomous decisions” presses against my own autonomy armor and invites me to be the person created for communion and community. Hold still, my soul. Release your “right” to decisions made by you alone, for you alone.
And in the place of self-determination, receive everything God would give you instead. Rouse yourself, my soul, to supreme activity. Lift up your heart and hold out your hands. For having died to self, you now can have her back–to carry the life of Jesus into the world.