“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
I love these sparse and courageous words from Mary, in response to the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin that she will bear the Messiah. Mary’s willingness to surrender, on the spot, to God, to give herself over to God’s will, is an incredible moment of courage — perhaps the greatest single moment of courage in human history.
Needless to say, this is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. But, I recently learned something new about it, and about the ways we can surrender, like Mary, and take strength and comfort in her, in the presence of challenges — even at the brink of death.
I was blessed with this opportunity to learn during a recent (March 25) visit to Sue, one of our parishioners in our nursing home ministry, when I went to take her communion and to pray with her on the Feast of the Annunciation. Obviously, a few weeks have gone by since that visit — we’re now well into the Easter season. But, Sue’s words on that visit stuck with me, and with her permission I’d like to share them.
Sue and I have been sharing communion and praying together for about two years through the nursing home ministry at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Okla. Over the last year I’ve shared with Sue the strength and comfort I’ve found in Marian devotion, and how it brings me closer, with Mary, to Christ — admittedly, I am a novice. We’d prayed the Rosary together, and had said the Memorare for other members of the nursing home ministry at times of need. And, we had read the Annunciation story and the Magnificat, or Song of Mary, to glean comfort in troubling times from Mary’s strength of faith and courage.
All of these visits have served to add depth and beauty to my own faith — I always feel I’ve taken away more than I’ve given on these visits. So, I was particularly excited on March 25 when I arrived at the nursing home to bring communion, and to read and reflect on the Gospel passages from Luke for the Feast of the Annunciation.
We started out simply reading together the Annunciation:
The Birth of Jesus Foretold, Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid,Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
And, even though it’s outside the Lectionary for the Feast of the Annunciation, we read the Magnificat, because, well, you can never go wrong reading the Magnificat:
The Song of Mary Magnificat
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
I had prepared a few thoughts on these passages to share with Sue before we moved on to communion. I talked briefly about the elements of the Rosary found in the Annunciation, about Mary’s strength in surrendering to God, and the example we should take away in likewise deferring our own will to our Lord’s. Good enough.
But, then I asked Sue if she had anything she’d like to share on the Annunciation and Song of Mary. And, what she shared was far more profound than anything I’d brought to the table.
Sue shared the story of an aneurysm she’d suffered several years earlier, which nearly took her life. But, she said, it was a blessing — the medical emergency that almost killed her was a blessing — because it taught her to fully surrender to God.
“I had to surrender to God to stay alive,” Sue said. “It was God that kept me alive.”
“Without God I wouldn’t have lived. Without God moving through the hands of the surgeons, I wouldn’t have lived.”
Fully embracing the need to surrender to God, and the hands through which he would work, was necessary for Sue — even if the outcome was that she didn’t survive. And, Sue said, surrendering to that latter possibility brought her closer to God.
“I had to surrender,” she said. “I had to give myself up to God, and that brought me closer to him.”
With tears in her eyes, Sue said she wanted to be able to better communicate to others what that surrender meant to her, and how it drew her closer to Christ.
Not sure how to respond, I told her Christ can read our hearts in ways we cannot communicate. She smiled kindly, and said “I want other people to know it too.”
“I want other people to know it too, so they won’t be afraid,” she said. “I don’t want people to be afraid, because God is with them.”
Sue had struck on the heart of Gabriel’s message that Mary shares with us all: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” At the brink of death, surrendering to God in the way Mary had surrendered, Sue said she found the beauty and strength of that message that is waiting for us all: “The Lord is with you.”
In telling this message, I could see Sue was deeply moved. But, it wasn’t out of joy for the peace she’d found in her faith. It was out of sadness that others hadn’t yet found that same peace. That’s Sue in a nutshell. Every time we pray, this nursing home resident, in a cramped, shared room, asks to pray together for the homeless. She can always think of someone more in need of prayer than herself. And, in reflecting on an episode that nearly took her life, Sue was quietly crying for those who lived outside the peace of faith in Christ.
“It makes me sad,” she said. “It makes me want to cry for people when I see how much their faith has slipped. It makes me want to cry for people who don’t have faith, because they don’t have to be afraid.”
Sue went on to lament that too much of what passes for Christian faith today is superficial, focusing on personal desires and hollow social media expressions of platitude-faith.
“The only kind of faith that means anything is if you are certain about where you are going to go when you die,” Sue said, “and if you are not only certain in that, but comfortable with it.”
Sue had found the peace that allows her to be comfortable with whatever God has for her — up to, and including death. She found that peace through surrender, through the surrender Mary teaches us at the Annunciation.
I continue to learn far more than I teach when I visit Sue. I pray for the strength of surrender she has found, and the peace it brings. And, next time we visit, we will pray this prayer from St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess, Thou hast given me: I surrender it all to Thee to be disposed of according to Thy will. Give me only Thy love and Thy grace; with these I will be rich enough and will desire nothing more. Amen.
And, for all those still seeking in their faith, or seeking greater peace and the strength to surrender in their faith, we beseech you, O Most Blessed Virgin Mary, to intercede on their behalf, and lead them as a loving Mother into the arms of your Holy Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.