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Online Retreat: "Called and Sent" - Day Two


This is the second installment of the Catholics on Call summer online retreat on vocation. It is meant to be used for prayer after the reflection for the first day, on the call of Peter.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

  • Read Luke 1: 26-38
  • For the podcast, click here.

The gospel account of the annunciation to Mary is one of the most familiar and treasured stories in all of the Scriptures. Many Christians can mouth the words of this passage by heart. Yet I wonder if our exalted image of Mary may weaken the impact of this story. We rightly venerate Mary for her unique role in the salvation of humanity. We speak of her with titles like “Queen of Heaven.” In order to enter into this gospel scene, however, we need to remember that she was a young Jewish girl living in a rather obscure town in Israel. She would not have appeared “great” to her friends and family members at the time in which she was visited by the angel.

In a commentary on the gospel of Luke, Luke Timothy Johnson depicts the humble status that Mary had in society. She had no official position among the Jewish people, and her experience of God (unlike that of Zechariah when he received the announcement of birth of John the Baptist) did not take place in the Temple. It happened in the very modest setting of her home. “She is among the most powerless people in her society: she is young in a world that values age; female in the world ruled by men; poor in a stratified economy. Furthermore, she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence” (The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, 39). Mary appears as a rather unlikely candidate to be the one who will bear “the Son of the Most High.” But, as we learn throughout Luke’s gospel, God has an uncanny way of reversing normal human expectations. The God of Israel is the God who is full of surprises.

Mary understandably raises a thorny question when the angel tells her that she will conceive this child: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Not only did the angel’s promise seem physically impossible, it must also have raised legitimate fears within Mary. What would her family and friends think about this conception? What would Joseph think? Could anyone possibly understand this inexplicable event? The answer to her question is a reference to the power of the Holy Spirit; it is not human action but the power of God that will make this birth possible. In fact, she is assured, “nothing will be impossible with God.”

In the 12th century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, an influential theologian and mystic, wrote a homily focused on the scene of the annunciation. It is a truly exquisite reflection on this gospel passage. Bernard speaks to Mary as if he were present at the scene, pleading with her to give a positive response to the angel. Bernard says, “You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer, it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion…” The suspense builds as the homily proceeds, with biblical figures like Adam, Abraham and David begging Mary’s consent. “Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.” In this compelling meditation, Bernard conveys to the reader the historic significance of Mary’s response to the message of the angel.

We know the gospel words that reflect Mary’s answer very well: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” The courageous response of this young Jewish woman points forward to the response that her son will give to the Father in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” Mary’s greatness is found in her receptivity to the word of God that was spoken to her. Her “yes”, which did have significance for every person of every age, was based in a trust in the power of God to fulfill his promises even when the scope of that fulfillment exceeded human comprehension.

Mary has an essential role to play in the life of every baptized Christian. Her faithful presence and loving intercession are particularly important for anyone who is discerning a call to ministry in the Church. Sometimes we meet people whose greatness intimidates us. Their intelligence, skills, and accomplishments remind us of our own inadequacies, and we can leave the encounter feeling discouraged. But occasionally we come across a person whose greatness ennobles us. Often these are people who have risen from “nowhere” and have overcome great obstacles in their lives. They inspire us by their witness and awaken us to new possibilities in our own lives.

The greatness of Mary is truly ennobling for every believer. This young Jewish girl, who had little status in her society, became the woman whom all ages call blessed because of her receptivity to God’s word. The faithful presence of Mary in our lives always lifts us up; she reminds us of our dignity as sons and daughters of God and she encourages us to act out of that dignity. As we discern the call of God in our lives, Mary quietly helps us to be receptive to God’s word, to respond in trust to God with the conviction that “nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary helps us to utter our own “yes” to God even when we cannot see into the future and understand how it will all turn out.

I invite you to speak to Mary on this second day of retreat. Tell her about the worries and concerns that are significant in your life at the present time. Speak to her about the questions and doubts that you have regarding the word of God in your life. Ask her to help you listen to God with attention and openness, so that you may hear God’s voice in the silence of your heart. And pray for her powerful intercession, that you will have the courage to say “yes” to the call of God in your life.

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