The Encounter of Two “Yeses”

Typically, when I ponder the event of the Annunciation, which the Church celebrates today, I spend much time considering Mary’s act of faith in light of my own struggles with trust. I presume I am not alone in this way of thinking about the events recounted in Luke 1.

However, today I would like to expand this reflection:

1. The “yes” that came first. Before Mary uttered her “fiat,” God was at work. This Fact is worth serious consideration and should surprise us. The struggle with sin following the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, the constant turning to idolatry, the hardness of heart, the breaking of the family-bond (i.e. covenant), infects the chosen people like terminal illness. Israel takes on the role of the harlot. Yet God continues, covenant renewal after covenant renewal, prophet after persecuted prophet, sign and wonder after sign and wonder, to pursue His beloved. He risks love. He utters the first “yes.” He initiates. He says, “Yes, it is my will, for the sake of your salvation, that I give you my Beloved Son, conceived in human flesh, as little as an embryo, that you would receive my personal love.”

2. Mary’s “yes” perfectly mirrors that of her Son’s. In light of our first point, the second becomes clear. The Immaculate Conception, Mary, born without the stain of sin, receives God’s gift. A gift is not a gift if it is not received. A gift implies a Giver and a receiver. A dual “yes.” “Mary’s ‘yes’ perfectly mirrors that of Christ himself when he entered the world, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, interpreting Ps. 40: ‘As it is written of me in the book, I have come to do your will, O God’ (Heb. 10:7). The Son’s obedience was reflected in that of the Mother and thus, through the encounter of these two ‘yeses,’ God was able to take on a human face” (Pope Benedict XVI).

It is interesting to juxtapose the annunciation account with the fall of Eve in Gen. 3. There, Eve, questions God, believes the lies of the enemy, sees the goodness of the fruit and tastes it. She fails to trust in the Father’s plan, and she takes. Adam does as well. The wedge of sin results: between man and creation, man and himself, male and female, and man and God. Mary, in Luke 1, is united through betrothal to Joseph, though alone in her home in Nazareth. A mysterious presence approaches with a strange greeting. Mary is frightened (as Eve surely would have been by the snake/serpent) and questions. Yet Mary, through the grace offered to her by Christ’s “yes,” and her free response to it, is able to receive God’s gift even though she could not see it, taste it, touch it or smell it. God’s word, which she hears in the silence of her heart, is enough to warrant her complete faith.

This “yes” allows God to take on a human face, which was what he longed for all along, and what we were created for (Cf. Gen. 1:27). In Mary, the Word becomes flesh. In her active receptivity, God’s life springs forth into history in unprecedented fashion.

The energy of the gift, patiently poured out at the heart of Jerusalem, ends here in a fountain whose entire vital energy takes the form of acceptance. Mary has carried the Word long before conceiving him and has learned the self-giving of him whose whole being is consent to the Father. She has been fashioned by the Spirit and sees without realizing it that the most fruitful activity of the human person is to be able to “receive” God. (Jean Corbon. The Wellspring of Worship.)

The vital energy of our lives comes about, not through conjuring up feelings, impassioned humanitarian efforts, moralistic endeavors of the will, or Ulyssian striving for knowledge  about the ends of the earth. Vital energy, that which allows God to take on a human face, or that which generates the fullness of our humanity, comes through the active and ongoing reception of God’s “yes.” It comes for us by receiving a Person through the action of the Holy Spirit.

3. Mary’s “yes” was unseen by human eyes. At a time when nearly everything is sensationalized, tabloidized, emotionalized, publicized, institutionalized, globalized, etc., Mary’s “yes” stands out as a sign of contradiction. God comes in silence (though not in a vacuum) and Mary utters a thoroughly contemplative “yes.” There is no report of thundering voices, trumpets, pyrotechnics, loud music, falling over, and so forth. She simply knew with her whole being God’s presence and His will, and she responded fully and freely to that gift. This is an apt reminder for a generation dominated by materialism and driven by passion and phenomena. She simply said “yes” (and not for the first time), to the Lord in the quiet of her home. Indeed, “The Annunciation, recounted at the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, is a humble event – no one saw it, no one except Mary knew of it, but at the same time it was crucial to the history of humanity” (Pope Benedict XVI).

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Your Testimony

In her widely-read work Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell notes that Catholics, for the most part, have embraced a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to any talk of the personal, interior journey. She does note, however, that the Church places much emphasis on sacramental formation and calling for active participation (in liturgies, the community, etc.).

Yet there is a problem here. In order for the New Evangelization – the proclamation of the Gospel message with new ardor, new expressions, and new methods to non-practicing baptized Catholics – to take root, in order for the Gospel to be proclaimed, disciples are necessary. Disciples are those who have given their lives (and who continue to give more and more) to Jesus Christ through the Church, so that He might be Lord of their lives. One has to have something in order to hand anything on. Discipleship is the means, ever ancient, ever new, for that education/handing on of faith. It is intensely personal and transformative.

As such, an essential part of the New Evangelization, is the personal testimony. Pope Paul VI reminded the Church many years ago that nowadays people are more inclined to listen to witnesses, than to teachers. Plenty of people talk about ideas, but few share personally about riveting experiences that awaken faith, hope, and love. Few people testify to the encounter with Christ and what that encounter means for the whole of one’s life.

In order to break this “cone of silence,” and to build up the faith of our community, why not step out and take the Testimony Challenge? Write a testimony describing an encounter with Christ, a decision for Christ, etc. that brought about a change in your life. Remember, that a testimony testifies to what God has done in your life. The challenge is this…in the com-box, using 200 words or less, write your testimony. Include first names only. Go!

What is the Encounter with Christ? (Pt. 1 – The Awareness of an Other Who is Close to Me)

Recently, I’ve heard statements from both teens and adults to this effect: “I’ve never had a real encounter with Christ;” “I have never had a crisis moment, or an intense time of suffering [causing me to call upon Jesus and encounter Him.”

These statements lead into great questions: “What is an encounter with Christ?” and “How do I know that I have encountered Him?”

To these, I reply, that the encounter with Christ, as typically referred to, is that event (or series of events) by which my “I” becomes aware of Christ’s impact with my “I” (which happens sacramentally in Baptism). In other words, my “self” becomes aware of its Self. Or, in Biblical words, the recognition that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

What does all of this mean? (FYI…I don’t actually reply in those ways to people). And perhaps Augustine’s famous lines describe the enigmatic experience of encounter,  the awakening of the First Love:

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Too late loved I Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all. Thou calledst, and shoutedst, and burstest my deafness. Thou flashedst, shonest, and scatteredst my blindness. Thou breathedst odours, and I drew in breath and panted for Thee. I tasted, and hunger and thirst. Thou touchedst me, and I burned for Thy peace.

Here, Augustine touches on a number of important truths. This Love, is ancient and new, it is capable of penetrating the core of my existence. The problem of not having a “real” encounter does not lie so much in that Christ has not encountered me, but in that I look in the wrong places (any of the vain pursuits that cause restlessness, sinful habits that create a spiritual blindness, a myopic selfishness and individualism, etc.).

Yet in an unexpected moment, a moment wherein the soul exposes itself, when the “I” is vulnerable or open to surprise (i.e. praying, hoping, placing trust in another), Christ’s “I,” completely united with the human in His person, breaks into our consciousness from the depths of existence. There is a call (though not necessarily audible), there is a flash (though not necessarily visible), there is a sweet aroma (though not necessarily smell-able).  There is a Presence. An awareness of a Presence. This is the awareness of an Other – one that is not myself, but longing to be one with myself.

And upon becoming aware of this Presence, upon availing oneself to it, one pines, hungers, and thirsts, to remain in this interpersonal communion.

One thing is certain, and this is the case for Augustine, Ignatius, Francis, Zaccheus, the woman at the well, and basically every person who encounters Christ in the Gospel or saint of the Church, that one’s openness to reality is an openness to being touched and changed by Truth. It is, in essence, the disposition of humility, that of the beggar.

Pope Benedict XVI builds upon this phenomenological basis, and situates the encounter theologically within the context of Baptism. But more on that next time.