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The Annunciation: Our Lady’s Obedience
Some years ago, a good friend of mine discerned, after many years of struggle, a clarion call to the religious life. Before being led to the convent that is now her home, she said something rather odd to me: “The thought of religious obedience excites me!”
Who in this world is excited to obey? I believe God’s Spirit had moved her, cleansing and stripping away some of that human stubbornness so that He might send her where He wills.
Let us too embrace rather than cringe at the word “obedience.” Obedience has fundamentally to do with our response to God’s will, and we ought not to balk at what He asks us. Instead, doing God’s will ought to be a joy—for it is a privilege. This difficult lesson, so necessary to learn for our salvation, can be learned from the ideal teacher: Our Lady.
Disobedience: The First Human Sin
First, a history review: the devil, cast out of heaven, attempted to avenge himself on humanity. The devil is clever; for he aroused Eve’s doubts about God’s commands, even suggesting that there were good reasons to eat the forbidden fruit. She would be “like God”; besides, to Eve, the fruit looked tasty. Through Eve, Adam ate the fruit; through Adam, we all received death. The consequence of disobedience was the loss of paradise.
The Annunciation: Our Lady’s Obedience
Fortunately, disobedience did not end our story; our Creator had mercy on us. He promised a Savior. We know this beautiful story well: at prayer, the Blessed Virgin heard God’s voice through the Holy Angel Gabriel, who greeted her: “Hail, full of grace.” Hearing God’s will for her—to bear His Son—she assented.
There are many lessons on obedience within this world-altering exchange. In both Eve’s case and the Virgin Mary’s, God expressed His will, and each responded differently. The Virgin shows, however, more than mere obedience; her words and actions show how joyful, and how profound, true obedience is.
A Servant’s Humility
We see that the Virgin obeyed humbly. Her words of assent began with, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Considering herself a mere servant, she obeyed her Divine Master, not feeling entitled to argument, privilege, or favor for her service. In direct contrast, Eve was not humble; she fell to the temptation to be “like God” while distancing herself further from Him.
Fearlessness, Born of Faith, not Knowledge or Reason
Our Lady obeyed without fear of the future. Lest this be seen as a direct contradiction to the Holy Angel Gabriel saying, “Fear not,” we must understand that her fear was not as regards her impending motherhood; she did not know of that yet. Nor was she afraid of the angel, for tradition tells us that she knew the angels from her youth.
No, his words of grace and favor troubled her; aware that God’s favor toward her was undeserved, she feared a blow to her humility. This explains why the Holy Angel repeated the use of the word “grace” in his reassurance: “[T]hou hast found grace [gratiam] with God.” Her fear was assuaged and she re-exercised her humility as she responded. Her assent to God’s will was and still is perfect, with holy curiosity expressed in her question, not doubt or fear.
Furthermore, she assented despite not having full knowledge. She understood (and understands) the Incarnation through holy inspiration far better than we ever can, but nonetheless, she is human. Thus her assent also points to her extraordinary faith, from which her fearlessness comes.
Eve, also not knowing God’s plan, lacked both trust and faith.
Joy and Gratitude
Another aspect of the Virgin Mary’s obedience is joy, which is connected to gratitude. The Bible passage regarding the Annunciation shows little obvious outward feeling. However, the Blessed Virgin’s quiet joy at last overflowed in her subsequent visit to Saint Elizabeth. She journeyed in haste through the hill country, energized by joy. Her first words to her relative were, “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit exults in God my Savior!” Full of gratitude, she knew well that she was privileged beyond understanding to have the Lord choose her to aid in fulfilling His promise to Abraham and to cooperate in the plan of salvation. Of course, this joy would not have been possible without humility to know how privileged indeed she was.
Joy was a fruit of her obedience and humility. Yet Eve’s actions were marked by doubt and pride, followed by fear and shame from her disobedience. We, like Eve, often believe that obedience interferes with our desires and our free will; but our disobedience and sense of entitlement leads us, too, to misery.
The Desire of Her Heart, and Her Free Will
The Blessed Virgin chose of her own free will to obey. This is a puzzling aspect; for it seems to contradict her humble servant-status. And besides, did not the Holy Angel come to her simply to tell her it would be done, not to ask? But recall, first, that Eve had free will; untainted by sin, she chose to disobey. Thus, another woman, untainted by sin, had to undo Eve’s choice, choosing with freedom to obey.
If the Lord God knew that she would assent and never object, there would be no need to have the exchange between the Virgin and the Angel. The Gospel might leave us with a mere few words, such as: “According to God’s plan, the Virgin conceived the Messiah by the Holy Spirit.” In another example, we might again have had a shorter Gospel here; she could simply have said, “Be it done to me.” Reflections on the Annunciation often focus on the word fiat, “be it done.” These words alone suffice to show her cooperation and humility.
But her first words of assent, aside from expressing humility, revealed her heart and will. “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she said. That is an expression of both humility and desire: this is my identity; this is whom I wish to be.
Eve, however, not only disobeyed, but she wanted to be like God, not recognizing her lowliness. Her disobedience thus took on a diabolical tone. The Virgin had no such lofty pride in her heart. Our Lady recognized that she was made to love and serve God; she knew and recognized God’s will as her own true desire.
Ora Pro Nobis
Our Lady’s joyful obedience is a model for our own. We ought to ask the Blessed Virgin’s help not simply to accept, but to courageously choose God’s will in holy, humble obedience. May Our Lady’s prayers open our eyes to the joy of obedience. And, like Our Lady, may we recognize the Lord’s will as the true desire of our Hearts.