Proper of the Incarnation, St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, October 14, 2023

“Let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

Our Gospel reading today is a familiar one, not only to members of the Community of St. Mary but to all of us: the annunciation to the Blessed Virgin, greetings brought from God by the angel with the good news that Mary is to be the mother of the Savior. This is big news for the human race: the remedy for sin and death and for the salvation of the human race. Our reading culminates when Mary says “yes”: a positive response that’s required before anything else can happen.

God knows I’ve preached sermons on this text before, and God knows you and I have heard a few as well. Mary’s “yes” is required and necessary: a reminder that God’s grace is extended to human beings, not to overwhelm their agency, but in order to make possible their response. It’s a mystery that even that response that accepts what grace offers, itself requires God’s grace, God’s power and presence in our lives, in order to be effective. We can do nothing of our own strength, but only through God’s help going before us.

Remember the angel’s words, “Greetings, favored one!” (Lk. 1:28), or “full of grace” as we say in the prayer. Even before Mary is able to say “yes,” God extended his generous margin to her and prepared the way for her response. Still, when God is at work, our wills are never simply overridden; our own response is not only desired but required. Like St. Mary, we must respond in order for God’s plan to unfold.

What strikes me today about this text is that Mary’s “yes” is not a “one off.” By contrast, what usually strikes me is the unique character of this “yes”: the Blessed Virgin’s response at this particular time and place as itself the fulcrum on which the whole universe turns. Everything will be different for the human race after Mary’s response. The birth of the Savior that she makes possible, makes in turn everything possible, including things that were not in view before. Most importantly, God and humanity are reconciled by the Word made flesh, crucified and risen from the dead.

Again, what strikes me today is not the “one off” nature of her “yes” to God, the conclusive nature of that moment that leads to salvation, but rather its connection to Mary’s whole life as a follower of her Divine Son. Her response is no “one off” moment, but is followed by a life of discipleship, with all the challenges, joys, and heartbreaks that follow. That one moment is followed by others. Her “yes” is joined to a course of faithful following in the way of the cross, which leads to death and resurrection.

We see this elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke, when Simeon greets the Holy Family at the Temple, shortly after Jesus’ birth. The aged prophet tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk. 2:34-35). Simeon’s greeting points to the cruciform quality of Jesus’ own life, “a sign that will be opposed,” and to his mother’s sharing in that life, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” It’s also the theme of John’s Gospel, when he shows the Virgin Mary at the cross itself, standing with the Beloved Disciple on the day of crucifixion.

Mary’s “yes” is decisive for her life and the life of the world, but it is only one “yes” is a continuing series of responses that she offers. As a disciple, Mary must continue in what the pastor and writer Eugene Peterson calls (borrowing from Nietzsche) “a long obedience in the same direction.” She must continue to respond to God, not only at this critical juncture but throughout her life. She must be conformed over time to the cross of Christ, in whose shadow she stands; a sword must pierce her own soul if she is to share in his resurrection life. It’s not a single inspired moment, but our whole selves, the whole time, over the course of time, that’s required.

In this, Mary is our model for discipleship. We are all, as Christians, about the business of “a long obedience is the same direction.” Members of the Community of St. Mary, and other religious communities, may be graced by their particular vows to be more aware of the long-term commitment that comes with being a disciple. Resilience is required in the Christian life; a constancy and steadfastness that is part and parcel of following Jesus.

Whatever, our situation, and whatever our standing, we all stand in need of God’s grace in order to respond and follow through. That grace was with St. Mary, not only when she said “yes” but at every moment that followed. May God’s grace continue to be with us as we follow Jesus Christ as Lord, in this life and into the life to come.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee