But if Mary is as human as the rest of us, could her response be one filled only with total faithfulness and trust? The poet W.B. Yeats offers a reflection on the Blessed Virgin that, in some ways, fills out the picture of Mary as one willing to bear this divine child, yet knowing very little about what that would mean.
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart's blood stop
Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
Think, for a moment, about the terror Mary must have felt when the voice of an Angel, carrying the Word of the Lord, fell upon her ears. It would have been a voice nearly unbearable, like a ‘fallen flare through the hollow of an ear,’ setting ablaze her mind and heart. A sound one could never prepare for, and yet Mary bore this ‘fallen flare’ with a profound beauty and dignity. But alongside this beauty and dignity, Mary must have been aware of what this might cost her life. And so Yates beautifully imagines Mary recognizing the contentment she has found as a young woman washing clothes, and trading stories with her friends. But how could she live a life of normalcy when the child birthed from her womb was the child of God, the fullness of the Godhead enfleshed as the boy Jesus?
Had I not found content among the shows every common woman knows, chimney corner, garden walk, or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes and gather all the talk? She offers these reflections with the awareness that her life was no longer destined for normalcy, but for something so strange and profound that normalcy was a fading image from a life no longer possible. But even still, while visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary finds an inescapable joy in this path set before her: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
What I find so compelling about the Blessed Virgin is the way she navigated the interplay between the cost of obedience and the gains that come from it, a middle ground where certainty and doubt meet together. And in this harsh and confusing world, we certainly live within the tension between certainty and doubt. We cry aloud to God, desperate for answers and directions, yet we don’t forsake our faithfulness. We wonder where God is amidst tragedy and despair, yet we return time and time again in prayer to the very same God who often seems more silent than conversational. Between the two poles of certainty and doubt is where true and deep faith is to be found, exemplified most purely by the ‘Yes’ of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the message of Gabriel which could never have been fully understood or comprehended. In spite of the uncertainty, in spite of the cultural backlash, in spite of the loss of normalcy, Mary was willing to say ‘Yes’ because she believed that the God of Israel was faithful, just, and true, even if she couldn’t fully envision the fulfillment of the message: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
None of us can know precisely what tomorrow will bring, and we certainly can’t know with certainty the fullness of God’s mysteries. But here we are, at the end of Advent, nearing the horizon of Christmas, awaiting God to do something in our midst as we remember God’s coming into the world as a helpless child. We would do well to let the Blessed Virgin Mary be our guide as we navigate life between the two poles of certainty and doubt: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. It’s a song sung with joy and faith, even as Mary was fundamentally unprepared for the journey that awaited her. May it be our song to, as we wait for the fulfillment of God’s purposes in our own lives.
*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on December 20, 2015. The texts were Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-55.