Many of us, whether of Irish descent or not, celebrate the half-way to Saint Patrick's Day in September. Today, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Nine Months Until Christmas, give or take a day, as we pray through our observation of The Annunciation of the Lord.
The figure of Mary is often contested between Christian denominations. I must acknowledge, perhaps under the influence of my arch-Lutheran father, that there can be a certain Catholic excess when it comes to Mary. I once met an earnest and eager young candidate for the Jesuits who, over coffee and pastries, suddenly grasped my hands and began to pray loudly, commending "our conversation to the girdle of the most blessed and immaculate Mary." I don't know what shocked me more: that another guy grabbed my hands over vanilla-glazed treats or that he created, near as I can tell, a devotion to an article of clothing.
What we see in today's Gospels is the theme of 'yes' to God's invitation to friendship. When we talk about Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we really mean that at no point did Mary ever deny God's friend request. Throughout her life, Mary's heart had a single focus: to love her God and respond wholly to whatever it was she was asked to do.
Lest this be considered total fantasy, let's think about the way children are reared. Children reflect their parents; indeed, Parent-Teacher conferences never cease to impress upon me how alike sons are to their parents. Children are influenced by their parents and they by their parents. Often, it's not difficult to distinguish the children of Blue Bloods from those of the Nouveau Riche. Each one bears the mark of a family's history, a family's style.
The snapshot taken from Luke's Gospel points to precisely this sort of family history. I simply do not believe that Mary is the odd one-off in Israel's history of waiting for the Messiah. Quite to the contrary: Mary seems to be the product of a history of women and men who have sought God's will and to respond wholeheartedly to it. Rather than being a magical baby who never sinned, Mary is the fruit of humanity's long struggle to be open to God's grace, to God's ways. Mary said 'yes' to God because she was loved into the freedom of saying Yes. The fear that etches so many of our hearts and spirits is absent in her, not because of magic, but because God's grace had slowly shaped a family whose flowering renders her the one "full of grace."
In our own day, it is sad to think that the 'risks' many of us want to take are totally insane: binge drinking, anonymous sexual hook-ups, shady investments, drugs, etc.. The risks we seem to think will bring us meaning and purpose sem, to me, to be precisely those things that threaten most to destroy us. Compare this to Mary's quiet assent to God's offer, Mary's responding so generously to the innermost desire of her heart. Rather than sending her on the path of self-destruction, it launches a program of re-creation that continues today. Perhaps it will be the grace given to each of us that we find the courage to say 'yes' to what stirs within us and to respond generously to God's friendship.