by Kathryn Jean Lopez
“He knocks at Mary’s door.”
“He needs human freedom.”
“The only way He can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to His will.”
“In creating freedom, He made Himself in a certain sense dependent upon man.
“His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being.”
And that human being just happened to be a woman.
“He” here is, of course, God Himself. In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes clearly and compellingly about the circumstances of the birth of Christ and the pivotal role freedom played in it. And at the center of Christianity itself is one woman and the decision she made of her own free will to choose to trust God.
“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,” Saint Bernard wrote of this woman and her role in salvation history. “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 sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.”
And as mysterious a request as it was, salvific mercy from God was the long ache of Israel. The Incarnation, of course, was not anticipated. But that God might come to save us was not just suddenly sprung on us, as any good Jewish girl in Nazareth would have had an inkling. That seed of faith made her “yes” plausible.
In a sermon that pops up in the prayer of the Church in the days before Christmas, Saint Bernard continued:
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.
Heaven and earth await this woman’s reply, Saint Bernard writes. “It is the moment of a free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made,” Pope Benedict writes in The Infancy Narratives.
In Lent we recall with particular poignancy the past year, during which Christians were demonized as supposedly trying to squelch women’s freedom simply because they tried to protect religious freedom. We must insist on the freedom to propose an alternative to the contraceptive culture. What we have come to understand and even expect from one another in human relations is all too often something miserable.
The sexual union ought to be the most intimate, open, creative meeting of men and women, one that unites them in love with their Creator. The Catholic view of sexuality is simply a healthy proposal about who we are and where we might want to be. We are called to make and defend and live that proposal in the world. It’s still possible thanks to the generosity of a God who loves us in incomprehensible ways, and to the fiat the “yes” of a woman who would stand at the foot of the cross as the son she bore hung crucified.
As motherhood does, Mary’s “yes” changed her life. She had to explain this to Joseph. She had to give the Son of God room to be who He is! “How often in these situations,” Pope Benedict writes, “must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: ‘Rejoice, full of grace!’ and the consoling words: ‘Do not be afraid!’ The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.”
We, too, see and touch our Lord in the Eucharist, in His indwelling in the hearts of men. Because of that woman and her choice. Because of the great gift of fertility. Because of a mother.
Last October I was invited to Rome by the Holy Father to participate in the opening Mass for the Year of Faith, also marking the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. After Communion, Pope Benedict handed me a letter for all the women throughout the world. It was the same message to women Pope Paul VI had delivered at the closing of the council. What the Holy Father was communicating was unmistakable: We didn’t fully communicate this. You all didn’t hear it.
“[T]he Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman,” Pope Paul’s message explains:
But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.
Women of the world, know you are loved, know you are valued, know that God Himself ordained you for great, creative, loving work. Know that the mother of our Lord suffered deeply and, to this day, will bring your tears to her son. Know the love the Church has for women. Know our doors are open to serve you in your need. Know that men need you. Children need you. The world needs you. And know, if you have not given birth to a child, you have great nourishing gifts the world needs just as much as a child needs his mother.
We are living today with a whole lot of confusion about the meaning of our lives. Too often we fear the most that which will bring us the most joy and we walk away from true happiness in the face of poison pills with long-term bills that are presented as freedom. What we need to remember is that which opens the floodgates to true human flourishing is one woman’s freely spoken “yes” to God.
Kathryn Jean Lopez, a member of the Voices editorial board, is editor-at-large of National Review Online, and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large. A version of this article first appeared on the Catholic Pulse website of the Knights of Columbus (catholicpulse.com), and it appears here with permission.
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