Mary is the exemplary model of how we can best prepare for the coming of Christ.
The infancy narratives of the Gospel of Luke set forth her example in all its humble brilliance for us, beginning with the Annunciation:
Faith seeking understanding. After the angel announces the good news of Christ, Mary questions him. Zechariah had also quizzed the angel. So why was he punished but not Mary? A careful reading of the text indicates that his questions came from a place of doubt, whereas Mary’s came from a place of faith. Hers was a faith that was seeking understanding. As St. Ambrose wrote in a commentary on the verse:
It was Mary’s part neither to refuse belief in the Angel, nor too hastily take to herself the divine message. How subdued her answer is, compared with the words of the Priest. Then said Mary to the Angel, ‘How shall this be?’ She says, ‘How shall this be?’ He answers, ‘Whereby shall I know this?’ He refuses to believe that which he says he does not know, and seeks as it were still further authority for belief. She avows herself willing to do that which she doubts not will be done, but how, she is anxious to know.
We are not to be merely passive recipients of the Word of God. We ought to engage with it, to understand it, to question it—not to question its truth, but to ask that more of its truth may be unfolded for us.
Accept divine Providence. After the angel has answered Mary, she responds, “May it be done to me according to your word.” This simple proclamation constitutes Mary’s humble acceptance of God’s plan. The Incarnation represents the most dramatic intervention of divine providence in human history. Accepting this means both submitting to God’s will for all of history and for our place in it. It also means great patience. This is one of the cardinal virtues of Advent. As a whole, the nation of Israel had long waited for its Messiah. And then Mary personally had to wait for the reality of the Incarnation to unfold quietly in her womb.
But acceptance is more than just passive. Acceptance also means doing your part to enact God’s providential plan, as Pope St. John Paul II explains in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:
This fiat of Mary—‘let it be to me’—was decisive, on the human level, for the accomplishment of the divine mystery. There is a complete harmony with the words of the Son… .The mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished when Mary uttered her fiat: ‘Let it be to me according to your word,’ which made possible, as far as it depended upon her in the divine plan, the granting of her Son’s desire.
Share the joy. Immediately upon receiving this good news, Mary does not keep it to herself but shares the joy. Luke reports that she “set out … in haste” to the house of her cousin Elizabeth. And her cousin, in welcoming her is elated. Her joyful response fills her whole being such that the unborn John the Baptist leaps in her womb.
Mary’s action is a profoundly incarnational one: to be in solidarity in body and soul with another as much as possible. Both women were pregnant and both were carrying infants who were to be divinely appointed messengers of a sort. One was God Incarnate. The other would prepare the way for Him. We often think of the Incarnation as God taking on the human condition in its fullness to share in our suffering. And it was certainly that. But he also took on our humanity to share the joy of heaven with us.
Praise God. Her joyful encounter with Elizabeth leads Mary to sing the Magnificat. Contrast this with what happened to Zechariah: in doubting the angel he had been rendered mute. Mary, in believing, has her mouth opened that she might sing the praises of God and proclaim His Word. Already, even before the birth of the Incarnate God, the Word had filled Mary such that she radiated joy. As Pope St. John Paul puts it,
That which remained hidden in the depths of the ‘obedience of faith’ at the Annunciation can now be said to spring forth like a clear and life-giving flame of the spirit. The words used by Mary on the threshold of Elizabeth’s house are an inspired profession of her faith, in which her response to the revealed word is expressed with the religious and poetical exultation of her whole being towards God. In these sublime words, which are simultaneously very simple and wholly inspired by the sacred texts of the people of Israel. Mary’s personal experience, the ecstasy of her heart, shines forth. In them shines a ray of the mystery of God, the glory of his ineffable holiness, the eternal love which, as an irrevocable gift, enters into human history.
As we approach Christmas then, may we follow the example of Mary in letting the ‘ecstasies of our hearts’ ‘shine forth.’