When Mary said “yes” to carrying the Christ child in her womb, as seen in Luca Giordano’s The Annunciation, mankind was on the way to salvation.

Mary launched path to salvation

By 
  • March 27, 2016

Lady Day — the Catholic feast, not 1940s jazz diva Billie Holiday — doesn’t get much attention. It almost always falls too close to Easter and with the many Marian feasts crowding the Catholic calendar, it’s hard to make time for the Feast of the Annunciation. This year it has been moved from its usual March 25 to April 4 so it does not conflict with Good Friday.

It’s a feast that’s been with us since some time around the Council of Ephesus in 431. It’s almost as old as Christmas. It was called Lady Day in Medieval England and served as a rough marker of spring, the way Christmas began winter.

The argument among the bishops in Ephesus had been about the nature of Christ — was He really human? A human, after all, is something quite different from God. Maybe He was God just pretending to be human. Maybe there was just a tiny drop of humanity in a great sea of divinity in His being.

The ecumenical council (the third in Christian history) declared that Jesus was fully, completely and unambiguously human and at the same time authentically divine. This teaching found two popular expressions among fifth-century Christians. The first was to award Mary with the Greek title Theotokos, which means “God carrier.” To be born of a woman, just like everyone else, was a way of saying Jesus was human. To say that the baby in Mary’s womb was God is a way of acknowledging His divine nature. 

Sixteen centuries later, the Orthodox still celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation as a feast of Christ. On the Roman Catholic side, the emphasis falls on Mary. The Orthodox are right because the announcement being celebrated is the coming of Christ. The Catholics are right because the announcement of Christ is meaningful only once Mary says yes. 

The Western Church isn’t wavering on the one nature of Christ. He wasn’t two different beings disguised as a single human being. He was Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, fully human and fully divine. But, by shifting the emphasis to Mary, the Church teaches us something about the nature of the Church. 

“Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle.’ This is why the ‘Marian’ dimension of the Church precedes the ‘Petrine,’ ” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church (773).

That the Church is Marian first is one of those insights into Catholic life that is precious to Sr. Nuala Kenny. It means that the Church begins as a response to God (Mary said yes). Only later is that response organized, under Peter’s leadership, in ways that will make her yes real in the world.

“The courage and wisdom of Mary, revealed in the Annunciation, have come to be real and powerful supports for me,” Kenny wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

Kenny — a Sister of Charity of Halifax, a physician and a professor of pediatrics and bioethics — is well known for work leading the Canadian Church through two separate minefields. She has worked more than 20 years with Canadian bishops and religious orders on repairing the damage done by clergy sexual abuse. Added to that burden, she is point-woman in the Catholic Health Association of Canada’s response to legalized physician-assisted suicide.

It’s Mary who shows Kenny how the Church responds to great challenges.

“She embraces risk and uncertainty and her whole life is changed beyond human understanding,” Kenny said. “She says yes to the Holy Spirit, which leads to the real presence of Christ within her. She is transformed by the self-giving of God to her… The Church is also this yes to the power and plan of the Holy Spirit before she is ordered and organized.”

“It’s a very important feast,” is one of the first things Mother Dorothy Nzekwe, superior of the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate in Guelph, Ont., has to say about Lady Day. “The Annunciation has a great part to play, played a great part, in the salvation of humanity — from the moment she said yes to the angel’s message.”

For Nzekwa, Mary’s yes is the critical moment in the history of human salvation.

“The moment she said yes, the salvation of humanity is assured,” she said. “The moment the divine and human of Jesus come together in the womb of a creature, Mary, it’s a very unique moment.”

For most Catholics, that moment is captured in the first prayer many learn. “Hail Mary, full of grace…” put each of us in the role of the Angel Gabriel greeting a poor, peasant girl in Palestine with incredible news.

It’s news that matters for Sr. Sue Wilson, director of the Office for Systemic Justice with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada.

“It calls me to reflect daily on God’s gratuitous love for me,” she said in an e-mail. “It draws me toward a stance of both gratitude and justice.”

Why justice? Because that is Mary’s response to Gabriel’s news in the Magnificat.

“His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” Mary declares in Luke 1:46-55.

There is a deep spirituality wrapped up in the simple exchange between Mary and the angel.

“The angel’s greeting that ‘the Lord is with you’ points us toward the human reality of our oneness with God (one-with while still distinct-from),” Wilson writes. “The affirmation that Mary is ‘the favoured one’ does not set her apart from the rest of us humans (from you and me) but roots this encounter in the longer journey of chosenness that we see throughout the Scriptures — a journey from chosenness to intimacy, to graced union with divine love.”

So, Mary, Queen of the Apostles, shows us what the Church is for. It is there to say yes, there to discover the plan of the Holy Spirit, there to envelope and carry the real presence of Christ.

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