There are two fundamental ways of encountering the word of God.
The first way is to receive it. The second is to share it. Mary exemplifies the first; John the Baptist the second. During Advent and into Christmas, the Church places these two figures before us as focal points of contemplation.
We come to faith in Christ through hearing the word of God, as St. Paul says in Romans 10:17. In this sense, Mary is the archetypal Christian: her faith came through hearing the word of God, as delivered by the angel of Gabriel. Her decisive moment did not arrive while reading Scripture, receiving a sacrament, or meeting another Christian. She had only the word of God itself:
Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. ..Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. … Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end (Luke 1:28, 30, 31-33).
At first Mary is ‘troubled,’ perhaps even afraid, over his greeting. When we read the Annunciation, we are tempted to gloss over this part. We like to skip to the part where Mary responds to this divine invitation with her wholehearted yes! But her initial response is the initial precondition of what follows. Mary reacts as any human would at such words (as this author notes). It is her authentic humanity that makes her consent so remarkable.
What matters is that Mary remained opened to the word of God. She didn’t turn inward. She didn’t close her mind or her hear to the message of the angel. When she next speaks, she is ready to accept the word of God that she will give birth to a son. She merely questions how it might be done, given that she is a virgin who ‘knows not man.’
Mary’s absolute virginity turns out to be an essential condition of her role in the Incarnation. It is the ultimately sign of her pure receptivity to God. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger once observed, her receptivity to bearing God Incarnate follows from her openness to the word of God. “Mary welcomes the Holy Spirit into herself. Having become pure hearing, she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her” (Mary: The Church at the Source).
As ‘pure hearing’ Mary is a model of what it means to be a Christian. We too must be so radically receptive to the word of God that it ‘takes flesh’ in us.
But there is a second step. After receiving the word of God, the gospel, we must, in turn, proclaim it. This is exemplified in the figure of John the Baptist. As Mary was ‘pure hearing,’ so John the Baptist became ‘pure voice.’ Listen to how he identified himself when questioned by the priests and Levites in John 1:
So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert,
“Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ (vv. 22-23).
John’s answer is so familiar to us that we often don’t realize how odd it is. Listen again to what he says: I am the voice of one crying out in the desert. Notice what he doesn’t say. He does not identify himself as ‘one crying out in the desert.’ Again, he is not ‘one in the desert with a voice crying out.’ No, he is the voice.
Just as Mary became ‘pure hearing’ so also John became ‘pure voice.’ For Mary, radical receptivity to God defined her being so profoundly that it ‘took flesh’ within her. Likewise, for John, proclaiming the word consumed his whole being, displacing his own individual existence: ‘I am the voice of one crying out.’ His voice, which proclaims the prophetic word of God, is what matters. His individuality—as ‘the one who cries out in the desert’—is secondary.
As John himself said, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). For John, that went all the way. Mary recognized the same reality: “My soul magnifies the Lord”—not, the Lord has magnified me (Luke 1:46).
This became the paradigm for all later Christians. Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” And, like John the Baptist, Paul was one of the greatest Christian preachers. Even Mary was a preacher of a kind: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (as another translation of Luke 1:46 puts it).
Both modes of responding to the gospel message are needed: receptivity and proclamation. Like Mary, we are called to become pure hearing so that, like John the Baptist, we might become voices crying out in the desert for Christ.