(“Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly…” Annunciation, Denise Levertov)
I am delighted to preach on this feast day since this is an important day for my religious congregation, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. It is the anniversary of the first profession of vows of our founding women, Blessed Marie Rose and her two companions, Sisters Marie-Madeleine, and Marie-Agnes. These three women responded to God’s call in their lives following the example of Mary. “Be it done to me according to your word!” (Lk.1:38)
For many Catholics, especially women, the feast of the Immaculate Conception evokes a range of emotions - from joy and deep affection for Mary - to feelings of inadequacy before her, given the honored place she holds as a woman conceived without sin and especially chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. In the face of this great honor, we can easily lose sight of how we, too, are blessed and full of grace; we, too are invited by God to do great things.
On this feast day, preachers often fall into the trap of portraying both Eve and Mary in an unfavorable light, speaking about Eve as the cause of Adam’s sin, and Mary as almost other than human, saying “yes” as if she had no choice. Fortunately, contemporary scripture scholarship offers us other ways of considering both Eve and Mary in the story of our spiritual history.
Since Vatican Council II, much more has been written about the scriptural understanding of Mary, emphasizing her oneness with all of humankind and her faithful discipleship. In a 1974 Encyclical, Pope Paul VI was the first to describe Mary as one of us and as the first disciple of Jesus, who “heard the word of God and lived it.” “Mary is ‘one of our race,’ a true daughter of Eve. Indeed, truly our sister…” (#56)
Mary is remembered because she consented to God’s invitation in her life, a consent that came from a life committed to studying and pondering God’s Word. As we know from our own lives, consenting to God’s invitation is not normally a matter of a single call from God with a simple response, but rather a process of decision-making in the context of prayer and our relationship to God, over time.
We sometimes forget that Mary was an ordinary young Jewish woman of her time, not unlike young women today who have said yes to their calling and have lived on in history because of their courage in the face of great challenges. For example, young women such as Greta Thunberg, who was mocked and threatened because she challenged world leaders to take climate change seriously; and Malala, a Muslim girl almost beaten to death for merely wanting an education and later honored with the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17; and Amanda Gorman, the young poet at President Biden’s Inauguration who as a Christian believer reminded us that, “The question is no longer, “how could we prevail over catastrophe, but how could catastrophe prevail over us.” Mary said her “yes” to God’s invitation, even in the face of possible rejection by her husband and an uncertain future, because she believed in and trusted the Word of God. Steeped in that Word Mary knew in the deep recesses of her heart that God was with her and would not abandon her.
Consenting to God’s call in our lives can be a difficult process and sometimes even emotionally draining It often requires a response based on very little information. As you know from your own experience, consent requires a leap of faith and courage. Think of the many ways throughout your life that God has invited you to consider something new. For example, to move to another job or location, or to be stretched by new experiences in a different culture – each of these choices moving you out of your comfort zone. I remember when I was in my early 30’s I was invited to go to Japan to help set up a new Catechetical Center in Kyoto. The invitation came over a phone call from a priest in Japan who had known me and our congregation in the states. The call was totally unexpected and a real shock since I knew nothing about Japan and had never traveled outside the U.S. As I look back at that now, I can say that my choice to go to Japan for two years, was truly a life-changing, grace-filled experience.
The poet, Denise Levertov, speaks of the great courage it took for Mary to say yes to God’s call in her life. In her poem, “Annunciation,” Levertov describes Mary as an ordinary young woman, who heard a puzzling and frightening invitation in the midst of carrying out her normal routines. Despite some fear and disbelief about what she heard, she did not run or hide in a corner when invited to an unimaginable future, but rather engaged the angel in conversation and asked, “How can this be?” She then consented, assured that God was with her.
For Levertov, Mary’s consent was an act of “courage unparalleled, (that) opened her utterly.” Could it be that our consent to God’s invitation, over, and over again, frees us, too?
Patricia A. Parachini, SNJM
Patricia A. Parachini, SNJM
Patricia A. Parachini, SNJM, D.Min, is a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, living in Silver Spring, Maryland. Pat is a theologian and spiritual director. Pat has ministered as a professor of pastoral theology, preaching and spiritual direction in several graduate schools of ministry, i.e. Loyola University in Baltimore, the Washington Theological Union (WTU), St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and the Catholic University of America. Pat has worked in various other ministeries: spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy, campus ministry, catechetics, and teaching in elementary and high school. Pat contributes reflections to the liturgical aid, Give Us This Day. She has had two books published on lay preaching and has written two chapters published in edited books about preaching. Pat has written occasional articles for pastoral and liturgical journals, including several articles translated into Japanese for publication while she was in Kyoto. Pat has been a presenter for the Lectio Divinasessions at Baltimore Carmel. She has facilitated retreats, as well as workshops for ordained and lay preachers. Through her almost 60 years as a professed religious, Pat has been actively involved in committee and formation work for her religious congregation at the province and congregational levels. Pat made two trips to Latin America – a study tour of western Nicaragua, and volunteer ministry in Quito Ecuador at a hospital for children. Pat was invited to participate as a presenter in four meetings of the Middle East Cancer Consortium (MECC) held in Cyprus between 2005-2008. Her presentations to medical professionals addressed topics related to spirituality and healthcare in the context of pediatric oncology.
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