As Christmas draws ever nearer, my attention was drawn recently to an Advent homily preached by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux on the annunciation of our Lord’s conception and birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this homily, he contemplates the delay between Gabriel’s deliverance of the message to Mary (c.f. Luke 1:29,34), and her response, her fiat – the freely given ‘yes’ to God’s request that He may conceive in her Jesus, the Son of God, and through her consent and cooperation usher His great work of salvation into the world.
Bernard entreats our Blessed Mother with a breathless, almost impetuous sense of urgency to give her free consent to God, and emphasises the degree to which our salvation depends on this act of free human decision. He portrays a world shrouded in darkness, ‘under the sentence of condemnation’, waiting with baited breath for Mary’s response. In doing so, Saint Bernard not only heightens the sense of greatness with which this series of events – Annunciation; Incarnation; Virgin Birth – is imbued, but highlights the dignity God has given human beings by creating us with free will. In a sense, God depends on our free choices, and Mary’s fiat is the supreme example of this:
You have heard, O Virgin, the announcement of the great mystery; the means designed for its fulfillment have been unfolded to you, each wondrous, each replete with joy. “Rejoice, O daughter of Sion, and exult exceedingly, O virgin daughter of Jerusalem” (Zechariah 9:9). And because to you has been given joy and gladness, allow us to hear from your lips the answer and the good tidings which we desire, that the bones that have been humbled may rejoice. You have heard the fact, and have believed; believe also in the means which have been explained to you. You have heard that you are to conceive and bring forth a Son, and that it will not be through the power of man, but by the virtue of the Holy Ghost.
The angel awaits your reply, for it is time that he should return to God, Who sent him. We, too, are waiting, O Lady, for a word of mercy we, who are groaning under the sentence of condemnation. See, the price of our salvation is offered to you; if you consent, we shall at once be delivered. By the Eternal Word of God we were all created, and behold we die. By your short answer we shall be refreshed and recalled to life. Adam, with all his race Adam, a weeping exile from Paradise, implores it of you. Abraham entreats you, David beseeches you. This is the object of the burning desires of the holy fathers, of your fathers, who are still dwelling in the region of the shades of death. Behold the entire human race prostrate at your feet in expectation.
And rightly, for on your word depends the consolation of the wretched, the redemption of the captive, the freedom of the condemned, the salvation of your entire race, of all the children of Adam. Hasten, then, O Lady, to give your answer; hasten to speak the word so longed for by all on earth, in limbo, and in heaven. Yea, the King and Lord of all things, Who has greatly desired your beauty, desires as eagerly your word of consent, by which He has purposed to save the world. He whom you have pleased by your silence will now be more gratified by your reply.
Hark! He calls to you from heaven: “most beautiful among women, give me to hear your voice.” If you let Him hear your voice, He will enable you to see our salvation. And is not this what you have sought for, what you have prayed for night and day with sighs and tears? Why, then, delay? Are you the happy one to whom it has been promised, or “look we for another”? Yes, you indeed are that most fortunate one. You are the promised virgin, the expected virgin, the much- longed-for virgin, through whom your holy father Jacob, when about to die, rested his hope of eternal life, saying: “I will look for thy salvation, O Lord” (Genesis 49:18).
You, O Mary, are that virgin in whom and by whom God Himself, our King before all ages, determined to operate our salvation in the midst of the earth. Why do you humbly expect from another what is offered to you, and will soon be manifested through yourself if you will but yield your consent and speak the word? Answer, then, quickly to the angel yes, through the angel give your consent to your God. Answer the word, receive the Word. Utter yours, conceive the Divine. Speak the word that is transitory, and embrace the Word that is everlasting.
Why do you delay? Why are you fearful? Believe confess receive. Let humility put on courage, and timidity confidence. It is certainly by no means fitting that virginal simplicity should forget prudence. Yet in this one case only the prudent virgin need not fear presumption, because, though modesty shone forth in her silence, it is now more necessary that her devotion and obedience should be revealed by her speech.
Open, Blessed Virgin, your heart to faith, your lips to compliance, your bosom to your Creator. Behold, the desired of all nations stands at the gate and knocks. Oh, suppose He were to pass by while you delay! How would you begin again with sorrow to seek Him whom your soul loveth! Arise run open! Arise by faith, run by devotion, open by acceptance. Mary speaks. “Behold the hand maid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word.”