Saying Yes Like Mary Said Yes

During his apostolic ministry, roughly two decades after the Ascension of Christ, the St. Paul was compelled to write a letter to the Galatians that rebuked them for the false gospel they had adopted. After Paul had left them, certain men had infiltrated their congregation and convinced them that they, as Gentile Christians, needed to be circumcised and adopt certain ceremonial laws from the Old Covenant in order to be saved.

In his frustration and anger, the apostle told the Galatians that the life of Christ would have to be formed in them again: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). So great was their heresy that it actually ended the pregnancy and required that conception and subsequent gestation to be started all over again.

This was truly a dark day in the history of the early Church but what’s instructive for today’s practicing Catholic is the similarities we have with Our Lady seen through the lens of this controversy. Unlike Mary, Christ is not being physically formed in us in a literal manner, but he is being spiritually formed in us in a literal manner.

The decisions we make concerning our beliefs and behavior influence his formation in us, whether for good or for bad. Mortal sin can lead to the end of a pregnancy whereas a saintly life will lead to a birth that is brought to full-term and is healthy in every way.

St. Bernard said of Our Lady: “By her virginity she pleased God; by her humility she conceived him.” He no doubt is referring to Mary’s own words about herself when she said that God “regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk. 1:48).

A very helpful insight concerning the relationship between humility and a fruitful womb comes from the prophet Isaiah: “For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Is. 57:15).

Mary created the perfect home for Christ both inside and outside the womb because God loves to dwell in and with the humble. Christ is also conceived in us through humility.

It’s the poor in spirit who inherit the kingdom of God (Mt. 5:3). It’s those humble and broken souls who have come to the end of themselves and are acutely aware of their own spiritual and moral bankruptcy.

They are ready to receive the seed of the kingdom (Mt. 13:1-23) and have Christ conceived in them. As James wrote: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21; emphasis mine).

Whereas the virtue of humility was perfectly developed in Our Lady, it will take the rest of our lives to become truly humble servants of God. Whereas a significant aspect of our humility is the sorrow we feel concerning our sins, Mary the Immaculate Conception has no such sorrow.

However, our humility has this in common with Our Lady: we are both created. This means that everything we have comes from God and our admission of our nothingness creates the ideal abode for Christ.

There was a time when we did not exist: God breathed on dust and we became a living being. Every good gift, whether in the natural or the spiritual, added to our very existence comes from above: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

To sum up: Saying “yes, be it be done unto me” like Mary said yes prior to conception means saying it with a humble heart. What’s sometimes overlooked is that the same principle holds true during gestation (i.e. Christ being formed in us) as the process of sanctification unfolds this side of eternity.

Humility is not a one-time event as we are baptized in water and receive the Spirit. No; it is a mandatory lifestyle as we work out our salvation after conversion with fear and trembling.

The Triune God is three distinct yet undivided Persons. Where you find one Person you will find the other Two and that’s why St. Paul said of Christ: “in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9; emphasis mine).

Where you find humility, you will also find grace and obedience. This trinity undergirds and infuses our sanctification.

God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Pet. 5:5). Because Mary was perfectly humble, she was also full of grace which enabled her to practice the obedience of the handmaid of the Lord.

At his baptism Christ humbled himself and fulfilled all righteousness by letting his cousin baptize him. The Spirit of Grace (Heb. 10:29) rested on the humble Lamb, and, because of his obedience, his Father was well-pleased.

Mother Teresa went so far to say that humility was the mother of all the virtues:

“Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”

Little wonder Fr. Cajetan Mary da Bergamo, who wrote the classic Humility of Heart, believed that a person’s level of sanctification is proportionate to their level of humility. If this is true, Bergamo further asserted, our ranking in heaven will be directly related to how humble we are.

This is why Our Lady is the Queen of Heaven. Because she’s the most humble creature in all of creation, she is exalted far above all the saints, the angels, and even the highest angels: the cherubim and seraphim.

If we want to imitate Mary and have Christ fully formed in us, humility of heart is a good place to start. This will cultivate a life of virtue, obedience to Scripture and Tradition, and a robust liturgical, sacramental, and devotional experience.

Think of these things as really healthy things to feed your baby while they are in the womb. Think of straying from such things as a good way to end your pregnancy.

The latter is prevalent everywhere among self-identified Catholics. Not only do 69% not believe in the Real Presence but less than 50% believe that homosexual behavior, divorce and remarriage without an annulment, cohabitation, and contraception are sinful.

Such heterodoxy is often the fruit of pride (and poor catechesis). Such people believe they know better than Scripture and Tradition: they have taken God off the throne and replaced him with themselves in becoming the arbiters of truth and morality.

If Joseph and Mary lived today, many “progressive” (i.e. cafeteria) Catholics would see them as “rigid”, “judgmental” and “self-righteous”, because, when they presented Jesus in the temple, “they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord” (Lk. 2:39). Unlike many of their ancestors, they weren’t doing what was right in their own eyes (Judg. 21:25).

The “rigid” are accused of having the pride of the Pharisees but this is actually projection on the part of the “progressives” who, in their hubris, have made themselves the arbiters of truth and morality. It is, in fact, often in a deep humility that imitates Mary that the “rigid” submit themselves to an authority higher than themselves in obeying the faith once delivered (Jude 1:3).

Image: The Annunciation, Piermatteo D’Amelia, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of "Letters from Fawn Creek," a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fisherman,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

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