It’s a little word with a lot of power and by using it Mary opened the world to God in a very particular way. We tend to be much more enamored of “no” as a society, using filters to block unwanted voices and dropping people from our circle of friends when they “prove unworthy.” In some sense, we are entirely fond of rejection (as long as we are the rejector and not the rejectee) while finding affirmation to be rather insipid.
This in nonsense however, because affirmation is foundational to life. God affirmed the creation with “it is very good.” We affirm our prayers with “amen” a word Luther explained as “yes, yes, it shall be so” and encouraged us to “…always speak the Amen firmly. Never doubt that God in his mercy will surely hear you and say “yes” to your prayers.” Furthermore, our ability to live requires us to say “yes” to something, to choose a positive virtue we will embrace and live into. If this yes is omitted (and some do so), we become stunted children hiding from the world in fear.
Sometimes that fear is of the monsters that stalk our memories and populate the waking world around us. We say “no” to them in health but if we only say no, we end up like the child hiding their head under the covers and hoping that the monsters won’t attack what they cannot see.
The other “no” is the “no” of the clever who “will not be taken in.” A certain level of skepticism is indeed healthy, just think how many lies we wouldn’t swallow if we just asked “is this person really in a position to know this” instead of clicking like and sharing our outrage. At the same time, the danger of skepticism is that it leads us to automatically rejecting everything, even words of life. To borrow from C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle we can become “so afraid of being taken in that [we] cannot be taken out of [ourselves].”
Thus our powerful, beloved “no” when taken without a “yes” becomes a prison where we soundly reject external contact in favor of what is already inside our heads. We have closed the doors of our heart and proudly said “no” to what is outside our experience barely noticing that now it is just us in here, alone with the subtle madness of listening to our own thoughts.
No is powerful, but no alone does not give life. Yes on the other hand, is our choice of a way of life.
Yes is what we say to children, to spouses, to friends. It’s what we say to ideals like justice and mercy. And ultimately, “yes” is what we say to some overarching story that shapes our lives. It can be a story of loss and fear, a story of caution and hope. It can be a story of defiance in the face of darkness, or even a story that opens our lives to something profoundly different from everything we knew before. It is into that last kind of story that God invites Mary here in the first chapter of Luke.
God wants to break into the creation, to recapitulate it all and make a re-creation of the world. Various writers and theologians have emphasized Mary’s position as the door between heaven and earth through which Jesus came to walk among us. While this is an important part of the history of the language of the church, it casts Mary in a passive role. She was however, anything but passive in this process, as anyone who has carried a pregnancy can tell you.
Most guys have no clue about this but at base, pregnancy is a little like a horror movie. There’s this organism living inside of you, getting bigger, making you walk funny, sleep oddly, and eat things you do not like. It takes over your body, sending cascades of hormones through you that disturb your thoughts and disorganize your sense of self. And unlike the standard “alien takes over a human” thing, it’s not a short process. This… being takes over your whole life month after month in a glacial process that, like I said, would seem like the perfect plot for a Stephen King novel.
And yet, we celebrate pregnancy and the power of birth (in all its screaming, bloody, messy glory). Further, we celebrate this organism, this being who comes forth from this mess and then messes our entire life right up even unto the end of our days. Suddenly this sounds a lot less passive and etherial and a lot more visceral.
In other words, this sounds a lot more like what happens in human lives. It sounds more like what happened in Mary’s life.
There were reasons to talk about an eternal, unchangeable, bloodless life of faith. For one thing, it let us deal with the messy reality of God in our life at a remove. We were able to use a set of intellectual tongs and hold the Divine and Uncontrolled at arms length so that we weren’t overwhelmed. (Hint: the reason the angels always “say unto them ‘fear not!'” is because having the Holy, Mighty, and Living Power of God in our face all at once tends to overwhelm people)
While that bloodless model helped us get the basics of what is going on, at some point we have to face Mary’s choice.
God, through the angel, came to her with respect and positive regard “hail, highly favored one.” Her concerns “how can this be?” were addressed without condescension “the spirit will overshadow you,” and then God waited for her reply.
The gospel writer has a brief pause “and then she said” but it was one of those profound yes/no moments in life. She was given a free choice and she made a choice for “yes.” That positive affirmation, her decision that “I will go down this road” is fundamentally a choice for life. As such, it is a choice which is presented to us in our daily walk.
In a general sense, we are daily, even hourly, given the choice to reject the evil (“no”) and choose the good (“yes”). In the specific sense of Mary’s choice, we too are asked to bear Jesus in our lives. This means real change in who we are, real re-orientation of the stories we bring to the world. It means letting our heart grow bigger as Jesus grows inside of us. It means our walk of life and our diet of ideas will change as this Jesus in us pushes us in different directions.
Nothing changes because we are still us, and yet everything within us and about us changes. We say Mary’s yes just as she did, knowing in part what will happen but not really knowing what it means to have someone living inside of us. We say Mary’s yes with our whole life because Jesus, utterly cat-like, finds a way into every cranny of our being. And we say this profound yes because Mary said it first. She opened her life to Christ in her, the hope of glory.
Amen, amen, and amen.