It is no accident that the climax of The Lord of the Rings saga, the destruction of the one Ring of Power, takes place on March 25 of the Third Age of Middle-earth. J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, deliberately chose this date for his story’s decisive victory, when his fictional world would be unleashed from the thrall of evil and the threat of destruction and enslavement.
The significance of March 25, of course, is that it is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day when the Archangel Gabriel offered God’s proposal to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she become the mother of his only-begotten Son. At the Annunciation, Mary said “yes” to the Lord, and “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (Jn 1:14) March 25 is also traditionally understood to be the date of the Crucifixion. On these two most momentous days, this world was unleashed from the power of Satan and sin, from the threat of final destruction and enslavement.
The victory over sin and Satan belongs to Christ. As the ancient hymn Laudes Regiæ proclaims, “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!” (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”). Yet the Blessed Virgin Mary in a unique way shares in and proclaims the victory of her Son.
All Catholics are called to proclaim the victory of Christ, to unleash the Gospel in a world of people “who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” (Lk 1:79) And we could have no better model of a missionary disciple than Our Blessed Mother.
Our Lady unleashed the saving truth of the Gospel in the most literal way imaginable. The Word of God was born from her womb, shared in her flesh. Blessed Mary is what tradition has called the Theotokos, which is Greek for “God-bearer.” She bore God’s Son, brought him forth into the world and proclaimed God’s glory in words prayed by the whole universal Church: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Lk 1:46-47)
A question swiftly emerges: How can I imitate Mary in her motherhood? I can do many things to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but surely I cannot be his mother?
Fortunately, we have divine guidance to help us answer this question! We need to recall the time when Mary and other members of Jesus’ family wanted to speak with him while he was teaching the crowds in Matthew 12. Jesus used the opportunity to forge new family bonds with his disciples, saying, “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mt 12:50)
Christ’s emphasis on doing the will of God plunges us deep into the mystery of his mission and his mother’s share in that mission. Mary’s last words in Scripture were an encouragement to obedience: “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn 2:5)
Blessed Mary did not only call others to be obedient to God’s will. She lived obedience with a pure and undivided heart. Mary spoke perhaps her best-known words at the Annunciation, welcoming God’s messenger and pledging herself to his plan for her life: “Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’” (Lk 1:38)
Today, especially in those communities within the Church in which the New Evangelization is emphasized, a strong jargon has developed about what it means to be Catholic. We hear the call for “intentional disciples,” “dynamic Catholics,” “amazing parishes,” and so on. And these concepts contain much that is good. We do need to be, in the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “new in ardor” as we live and share our faith today.
But sometimes we can get ardor mixed up with aggressiveness or self-assertion, and so we should never forget that the first Christian act, the definitive act we see Our Lady perform at the Annunciation, is what we might call a passive act. Mary is available. Mary receives Gabriel’s message. Mary is passive before she becomes active. Mary is reactive when she expresses her great faith by speaking those words which made the whole Christian life possible because they welcome Christ into the world: “May it be done unto me according to your word.”
St. John Paul II called this receptivity a hallmark element of the “feminine genius.” It is the very opposite of aggression or even self-assertion. It is the very opposite of a sinful act. It is about being ever-ready to know and do God’s will, to bring Christ to a world that needs him. It is the way you act when you are “full of grace.” It is a model for every one of us who are disciples of Jesus.
Our Lord tells us in Luke’s Gospel that “out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (6:45) Only a heart as full of grace as Mary’s could say what she said. She was holy in an utterly unprecedented way, and so she could say “yes” to an utterly unprecedented proposal from God.
Yet each member of the Church has his own “yes” to say to God. And it would be natural to worry that since the hearts of sinners are not full of grace, saying “yes” is impossible. Or perhaps saying “yes” is manageable but living it out with persevering fidelity is not. Sometimes, after a few years of marriage, religious consecration or priestly life, Christians can be tempted to doubt their “yes” — whether they really meant it, whether they were even capable of meaning it, whether they are capable of staying faithful.
Pope Benedict XVI has some words of consolation for those who are tempted to doubt or experiencing discouragement. In his book Dogma and Preaching, he writes:
The mystery of the grace that takes place in Mary does not create a distance between us and her and make her unapproachable, turning her into an object of mere (and therefore empty, meaningless) wonder. On the contrary, she becomes a consoling sign of grace, for she proclaims the God whose light shone on the ignorant shepherds and whose mercy raised up the lowly in Israel and the world. She proclaims the God who is “greater than our hearts” (I Jn 3:20) and whose grace is stronger than all our weakness. If John the Baptist represents the unsettling seriousness of the divine summons, Mary represents the hidden but profound joy that this summons brings.
Much could be written about what it means to offer one’s own “yes,” or “fiat,” to God. Perhaps we ought to begin by affirming that each Christian is capable of saying this “yes” and living it faithfully, looking to Mary’s example and trusting in her help.
The Virgin Mary is often described in magisterial texts of recent years as the “Star of the New Evangelization.” And although Mary is meek and lowly, we know that God has exalted her, raising her up to be queen of heaven and earth. Does this put her out of reach? The great preacher and apologist Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) in a 1954 sermon on the Assumption offers a beautiful reflection on the wondrous harmony of Mary’s relationships with God and us, her children:
When the Son of God came to earth, he came to turn our hearts away from the earth, Godwards. And as the traveler, shading his eyes while he contemplates some long vista of scenery, searches about for a human figure that will give him the scale of those distant surroundings, so we, with dazzled eyes looking Godwards, identify and welcome one purely human figure, close to his throne. One ship has rounded the headland, one destiny is achieved, one human perfection exists. And as we watch it, we see God clearer, see God greater, through this masterpiece of his dealings with mankind.
Blessed Mary is a model of evangelization in so many ways. She is perfectly holy, “full of grace.” Mary has a profoundly contemplative heart. We read in Luke 2:19 that she “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary knew the difference between two kinds of strength the heart can have: the false kind of strength that comes from hardening your heart and the true strength of a contemplative heart. A hardened heart shuts out the trials and suffering that inevitably come with loving deeply, while the contemplative heart loves God and others deeply and is able both to embrace the joys and to endure the trials that come with true love.
Contemplative hearts such as the Virgin Mary’s also open themselves to the greater realities of God and his presence and action in our lives. While a hardened heart is afraid of mystery, of anything that isn’t immediate, obvious and easy, a contemplative heart embraces the mysteries of God, of human life and of the relationship of love we have with him.
We need to foster contemplative hearts within ourselves if we are to respond to God’s presence and action in our own lives. Only by cultivating contemplative hearts will we be prepared to share the Gospel.
We need to pledge ourselves to God’s will, his plan for our lives. We need to pray deeply and often about the mysteries of our salvation in Christ. We need Mary’s humility, the kind of humility it takes to share Christ with the world around us and to allow ourselves to fade into the background. Think of all of the Madonna and Child paintings in Catholic churches throughout the world. They all testify to Mary’s resolve to show her son to the world.
We need to follow Christ even to Calvary, just as Mary did. “We preach Christ crucified,” St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:23. We will preach effectively insofar as we have remained with Christ in his suffering and death.
We must go wherever God sends us, sharing Christ with everyone he calls us to evangelize. The Blessed Mother’s apparitions at Guadalupe, Lourdes, Fatima and elsewhere demonstrate Mary’s mission to share the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death, a victory in which she fully shares in heaven. Our Lady of Guadalupe alone is responsible for millions of conversions to Christ and his church!
We must be devout as Mary was devout. This is an often-overlooked dimension of evangelization. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews. They faithfully worshipped in the Temple, at synagogue and in their home at Nazareth.
The Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, the proclamation of the Gospel. Our devotion to the sacred liturgy and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist testifies to our consecration as God’s people and it equips us for unleashing the Gospel.
In all of these things, we follow the Blessed Virgin Mary in glorifying God in all things, praising him for his goodness, power and mercy, and by announcing the greatest victory this world has ever known or will ever know, the victory over sin and death of her beloved son and Our Lord and brother.
Holy Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us!