If Mary Had Said 'No'

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Each year, throughout the Advent Season, three Biblical personalities dominate the liturgical stage. The first is Isaiah, whose prophecies describe in beautiful and soaring language the peace, justice and joy of the Kingdom of God.

The second is John the Baptist, whose entire life and mission had but one purpose: to prepare the People of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. And the third is our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary.

Mary appears in the liturgy toward the end of the Advent Season and of course, next to Jesus, is the dominant character of the entire Christmas Season. In all of the familiar stories of the Advent and Christmas cycle – the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Birth of Christ, the Presentation in the Temple, the Visit of the Magi, and the Flight into Egypt – the spotlight shines on Mary.

Mary’s story is intimately tied to the mystery of the Incarnation. The late and saintly Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan of Vietnam, who had a beautiful devotion to our Blessed Mother, said that Mary’s entire life can be summed up in three words: Ecce, Fiat, and Magnificat – Ecce: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Fiat: “May it be done unto me according to thy word.” And Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Mary’s generous response to the Lord when the Angel Gabriel appeared to her to announce that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God is well known, and sets the stage for the mystery we celebrate at Christmas. But I wonder if we’ve come to take Mary’s “yes” for granted.

Here’s a question to think about: What if Mary had said “no” to the Lord? Surely she could have said “no” – she still had the gift of free will when she was asked to be the Mother of God. God wouldn’t and didn’t force her to become a pawn in His plan of salvation.

And Mary could’ve had some very good reasons to say “no.” She probably didn’t completely understand what was being asked of her and could have been afraid to begin walking down that rather uncertain path. Or she could have deemed herself unworthy to be the Mother of God, to have such a special relationship with Almighty God. Or she could have realized that her acceptance of God’s offer would completely disrupt her life – after all she was engaged to her beloved Joseph and no doubt had some very definite plans about living a quiet and peaceful life as a typical wife and mother in the little town of Nazareth.

I also wonder what God would have done if Mary had said “no.” Would He have given her an opportunity to reconsider? (“I’ll make her an offer she can’t refuse.”) Would God have chosen someone else for this role? I wonder who it would have been. And just maybe God would have found another way to accomplish our salvation. Perhaps our redemption would have been delayed indefinitely; maybe we’d still be waiting for the Savior today.

So much was depending on Mary’s response; God’s eternal plan of salvation was hanging in the balance. St. Bernard, the great religious leader and teacher of the 12th century, wrote a beautiful reflection describing to the whole world, how all of human history, was anxiously awaiting Mary’s response to the invitation to become the Mother of God: “The angel awaits an answer. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent . . . Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel. Breathe a passing word; embrace the Eternal Word.”

Happily, we know that Mary, in a wonderful expression of humility and obedience said “yes” to the Lord, and the rest, as they say, is salvation history. Her faith and God’s grace made for a potent combination. Despite the uncertainty of the path she was now to travel, despite her anxieties and fears, Mary trusted in the Lord and said “yes.” Mary’s “yes” made it possible for the Incarnate Word to become flesh. Mary’s “yes” made it possible for the Son of God to be born into our world. And Mary’s “yes” made it possible for Jesus to walk among us and fulfill His mission of salvation. Her “yes” restored hope to a fallen and needy world!

Throughout the Christmas Season, then, pay attention to Mary. We have so much to learn from her example of faith and trust. And we know that if we look at Mary, her gaze will always lead us to Christ our Savior.

Dear friends, in this holy season I extend my prayers and blessings to all the members of our diocesan family. May the hope, peace and joy of Christ be with you in this Christmas Season, throughout the New Year and always.