The Feast of the Annunciation
Fr. Patrick Reardon · April 1, 2013
Fr. Pat examines the principle of synergy, the assent of Mary, and holiness and personal history as they relate to the Feast of the Annunciation.
You may have noticed, if you’ve watched sporting events on television, that you can get this enormous, massive football player or basketball player in front of the camera, and the first thing they say is, “Hi, Mom!” It says a great deal about manhood, I believe. I was thinking that the other day, the day after Pope Francis was elected. The reason I turned I turned on the news that morning, the morning after, and there came up a picture of the newly elected Bishop of Rome placing a bouquet of flowers in front of an icon of our Lady. I recognized the icon immediately and knew exactly what it was. The icon is Maria Salus Populi Romani: Mary, Salvation of the Roman People. It’s in the side chapel at St. Mary Major, and I’ve prayed there times out of mind.
I believe the last time we were in Rome, it was August 15, the feast of the Dormition, and we attended Mass there in that side chapel. I thought of that the other day. At the first basilica he went to—he hadn’t gone to St. Peter’s yet—the Basilica of St. Mary Major—it means Big St. Mary’s; it’s the Maria Maggiore—stands at the top of the Via Merulana, within walking distance of its cathedral. He did not go to its cathedral, St. John Lateran. He went to this. He got into a car, I’m told, a little black Volkswagen and drove himself over without any guard, without papal nothing. No nothing, but somebody must have been tipped off, because there were cameras waiting to pick that up. That’s kind of wonderful, absolutely wonderful: “Hi, Mom!” Just marvelous. I hadn’t had the chance to meet either a large basketball or football player, and even less chance of being pope, but that’s my message for this morning: “Hi, Mom!”
I want to speak about three points this morning in connection with this feast. First, the principle of synergy. Obviously, that’s going to take a lot of work; it may be my longest point. Second, the assent, a-s-s-e-n-t, the assent of Mary. Third, holiness and personal history.
Let us speak first of the principle of synergy. I have to begin, I suppose, by saying what this term means. When the holy Church declared, in the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the existence of two wills in Christ, it was the intention of the Council Fathers to assert that man’s salvation involves the union of man’s will with God’s will: an enormous mystery. Much of Western theology has been engaged in how to fix this, with Pelagianism on the one side and something else on the other, how to fix this.
How do we intellectually, conceptually reconcile God’s will in man’s and man’s will in God’s? In fact, there’ve been schisms in the Western Church on precisely that question. Of course, there were schisms; there’s a schism in the Eastern Church on that question, too: the monothelites. I spoke about that recently, didn’t I? The monothelites. Monothelite is not a floor-polishing; it’s a heresy. It says that only God’s will saves man. That runs all the way through at least the last thousand years; it runs all the way through Western theology: only God’s will saves man. It’s a heresy.
The teaching of the Church is that God saves, but not without man’s will and cooperation. The Greek word for cooperation is synergia, the union of two forces. How are they united? They’re united the same way the humanity and the divinity of Christ are united: undivided, unseparated, not mixed. Salvation is a compound mystery, accomplished in the conflation of two freedoms—and I took my life in my hands by using the word “conflation”—the freedom of God and the freedom of man, two subjects in which their own predications are contained. The union of two subjects, each containing its own predication. The union: God’s act with man’s act.
Following the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor, the Council Fathers (in the Sixth Ecumenical Council) reasoned that man’s redemption was accomplished by the free obedience of Jesus to the will of the Father. Why did they say that? Because the Scriptures say that. This obedience was expressed in the prayer of Jesus in the Garden: “O my Father, if this cup cannot pass away from me unless I drink it, thy will be done.” Now, the original Greek for these final words is: “Genēthētō to thelēma sou.” These words are identical—identical, verbatim—to the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer. “Genēthētō to thelēma sou; thy will be done.” Whereby Jesus places on our own lips, and perhaps many times a day, the same aspiration that governed his obedience to the Father.
Salvation and holiness consist in the loving union of the divine and human wills, a union in which the work of the human being is to assent to, cooperate with, and be transformed by God’s salvific intervention in history. The traditional word expressing this union is “synergia.”
Second: the assent of Mary. “Genēthētō, let it be done,” the verb used in both the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer of Jesus in the Garden is heard in today’s reading of the Gospel, and this time on the lips of Mary at the Annunciation of Gabriel: “Genoitō moi [kata] to rhēma sou; be it done unto me according to thy word.” The Holy Spirit, according to the gospel of Luke, is the active agent in the Incarnation, but this action is not forced on a young Galilean woman. Her assent and cooperation were required by the very nature of salvation.
The most significant fact about Mary was her consent to God’s invitation. That’s the most significant fact about Mary, and absolutely everything else recorded in the four gospels depended on that consent. Without human consent, there is no salvation. Without Mary’s response to the angel, we would still be in our sins. Without Mary’s response to the angel, there would be no sermon on the mount, no walking on the waters, no healing on the Sabbath. Apart from Mary’s response to the angel, the blind men of Jericho would still be blind, the widow’s son [of] Naim still be dead, Zacchaeus would never have climbed that sycamore tree. The sisters of Lazarus would still be weeping at his tomb. All these things come from Mary’s consent to the angel. Without Mary’s consent to the angel, there is no one to die for us on the Cross and to rise for our justification.
We started chanting last night at vespers, we’ve done it several times here today, we’ve chanted, “Today is the beginning of our salvation.” If in the Incarnation God worked salvation upon the earth, he expects of the human race a free assent to that salvation. In this respect, the young Galilean woman speaks for all of us. She becomes the first to assent: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The union of her will with the will of God is a high illustration of synergia.
She is at once the unique locus at which redemption is accomplished and is the pre-model for all the disciples of Christ. Her prayer, “Let it be done,” is delivered during the season of the Great Fast, toward the end of which we shall hear it again from the lips of Christ on Holy Thursday. It is she who introduces the synergia of our redemption. It was she who taught her Son to say yes to God. It was from her that he learned to respond in faith to the call of God, not counting the cost. Their destinies are inextricably intertwined in the mystery of redemption. Apart from Mary, there is no Jesus, and if you have a Jesus apart from Mary, it’s the wrong one. It’s not the Incarnate Word any more; it’s something else, it’s some other configuration. It’s not the Jesus of history, the Savior of the world.
Now does this have anything to do with us? which brings us to point three. When Mary said yes to the angel, she could hardly imagine all the things she was saying yes to, because the advance of holiness has to do with personal history. There’s a before and an after, and there’s a process one goes through. I’m even reluctant to use the word “process,” because “process” suggests that maybe the end term is already known, and it’s not like processed cheese: you know what you’re going to get. No, it’s not like that; it’s not processed in that sense. But you go through something; it’s the experience. I’m reluctant to use the word “process” because it has the wrong connotation, not helpful connotations.
We go through things, and we don’t see the end of it. Personal history takes place one step at a time, and those steps represent the advance of holiness, if they are, one by one, guided by the Word of God. Here I come to what is probably everybody’s favorite line in the 119th Psalm—there’s a lot of lines there—
Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a guide unto my steps.
Thy word is a lamp. It’s just a lamp. It sheds just enough light for the next step. It is not light at the end of the tunnel. It is light we hold in our hands. We light this lamp each day when we open the sacred text. That has to be, along with making coffee, the first thing you do every morning: light the lamp! Open the text! so it may guide our steps. It’s important that we do this every day.
Here we take the mother of Jesus as the model for our own lives. Even as Simeon prophesied that Jesus was destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction, the old man took care to warn Mary, “Yes, a sword will pass through your own soul also.” This prophesy was mainly fulfilled on Mount Calvary, where there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, loyally adhering to him unto the end. For this reason, we find [Mary] in the New Testament’s last mention of her, gathered with the other Christians in the upper room, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. She threw in her lot with us, waiting in the upper room for the descent of the Holy Spirit. For the rest, she walked in faith, and thereby taught her Son to walk in faith.
Gradually, day by day, the Child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. But at least at the beginning not much happened that was extraordinary. Indeed, Jesus seems so ordinary a Child that Mary and Joseph were quite stunned when, at age 12, he suddenly asked them, “Do you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” When Mary said yes to the angel, she did not see the distant scene. She did not foresee that day in the temple. She did not foresee the Cross under which she would stand with the other holy women to watch as the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world.
Mary took one step at a time, God’s word being a lamp unto her feet, and a guide unto her path. She is our model in our own personal histories and our advance in holiness, for we, too, do not see the distant scene. When we walk with God, my brothers and sisters, there is only today. Let no one here, within range of my voice, promise themselves tomorrow, but only today. One step at a time; thy word is a lamp unto my feet.
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom. Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home. Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet. I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile, which I
have loved long since, and lost awhile.