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THE Annunciation is so pivotal in the history of salvation that many feel its Feast Day (March 25) should have the status of a holyday of obligation. Strange, then, that there are Catholics who downplay the role of Mary, the central figure in that historic event.

These people claim that Mary was a poor innocent Jewish girl who didn’t really know what was happening to her when she became the Mother of God. Really? Whenever I hear this argument trotted out, I think that the speaker must be praying to a different God than the One I pray to.

You see, God’s greatest gift to us is free will. He gave it to us because He wants us to come to Him of our own accord, to love him of our own choosing -–no forcing, no pressure.

It follows that God could not have come down on earth without Mary’s full co-operation. It had to be her decision, made freely. Some decision then, for a girl who didn’t know what was happening to her.

To digress a little, do you recall the conditions laid down in the old catechism for the commission of a mortal sin? You had to have grave matter, full knowledge and full consent. In other words, you had to willingly and knowingly reject God. No wonder they say it’s hard to commit a ‘mortaller’.

Applying this to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, it’s clear that, to be consistent, God would only allow Mary to be His mother if she, with full knowledge, willingly consented. And so it happened, when she said: “Be it done unto me, according to your word” in response to the Angel Gabriel.

Frank Duff put Mary’s decision in its true perspective when he said that the world held its collective breath in anticipation of Mary’s reply, because on it hinged God’s plan for our salvation.

There is another story in St Luke which points up the significance of Mary’s role. This is the story of John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah. Like Mary, he was informed by the Angel Gabriel of his son’s impending birth, and was also told what the child would be called. When Zechariah replied: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years,” he was punished for his questioning by being silenced until the child was born and was being named.

Mary likewise asked a question of the Angel Gabriel when he informed her that she was to be the Mother of God: “How can this be, for I am a virgin?” Because it was vital to her free will, Mary received an answer, not a punishment, for her questioning.

The fact that Mary was conceived immaculately – that is, she was, from conception, without stain of original sin – is another element we must take into account. She suffered not the darkness and weakness which we live with daily; she was all light and strength, able to see and act with clarity of thought and will.

Any doubts which remain about Mary’s significance in the life of Jesus should evaporate with a reading of the story of the finding in the temple, and the wedding feast of Cana. Mary’s words in the Bible are few, but on both of those occasions, her remarks are recorded – with telling effect.

In the life of Christ, both events are linked, for they determined the start of His public life – and Mary was His guide each time. It is quite simply impossible to overstate the significance of Mary’s role in the life of Christ.

Jesus’s decision to stay behind in the temple after Joseph and Mary had left for Nazareth indicates that he had the impatience of youth. He was anxious to get on with the work of teaching for which He had been sent.

However, Mary made it clear how hard his absence had been on his earthly parents and, despite an attempt to justify Himself, Jesus decided to honour His parents and returned home with them. Mary, by her words, put down a clear marker – Jesus’s time had not yet come – and He accepted that.

Jesus’s attitude at the wedding feast in Cana was the complete opposite. On this occasion, He clearly indicated His reluctance to begin His public life.

When Mary approached Him with the news that the hosts had run out of wine, Jesus’s reply was one of irritation: “O woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come?”

However, Mary was certain that His hour had come, so she said to the servants: “Do whatever He tells you.” Jesus proceeded to perform His first public miracle, setting in train the events that were to lead to His death and resurrection.

Anyone trying to downplay Mary’s role in the life of Christ is simply not paying attention to the interplay between mother and son.

© Seán Ryan, 2005

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