Because of the events of the 2020 presidential election we have the first woman vice president in the history of our Republic. Whether one voted for her ticket or not, it is the sort of event that enables us to, down the road, see such happenings as commonplace and not even worthy of mention. But today we see just how important that it was for her to say “yes” when Joe Biden asked her to be his running-mate. I don’t know the amount of time that elapsed between the asking and the answering, but no matter how brief a period of time, I’m guessing it seemed interminable to the Democratic presidential nominee.
As important as that positive response was for the future of our country, it pales in comparison to an earlier “yes” given by a woman to an even more historic question.
In his fourth sermon from the series known by the title In Praise of the Virgin Mary, St. Bernard of Clairvaux ponders the scene where Mary has been presented by God’s messenger, the Angel Gabriel, with the ultimate question: Will you be the mother of the Messiah, the Son of God? Bernard places not only himself within the context of the story, but all of humanity as well:
“Adam stands here weeping with his poor exiled children and awaits your answer…The whole world is prostrate at your feet and waiting. What else can they do, since on your words depend the consolation of the wretched, the liberation of prisoners, the rescue of the condemned, and, in a word, the salvation of all Adam’s children, of your whole race?”
This sermon, written by arguably the greatest theologian of Mary, goes on to beg her to “answer quickly” and asks “why the delay and the trembling?” He pleads to her with poetic beauty: “Give your word and receive the Word; speak the word that passes and embrace the Word Who abides forever!”
Everyone listening to or reading this sermon knows the outcome, yet it is so well written that we find ourselves pleading alongside Bernard, echoing his words: “The One for Whom the nations yearns is knocking at the door…Rise up, run, open!”
Because Mary’s answer is celebrated during Lent it is easy to slip past March 25th and the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord without even a thought. From an academic standpoint it can be reduced to a mere quirk of the liturgical calendar – count back nine months from Christmas and you have the Annunciation. To ignore or to trivialize this feast is to miss out on the magnitude of the event at hand. This is the most important decision made by a human person since Eve “took some of [the tree’s] fruit and ate it.”
Mary is often seen as the New Eve and rightly so. Eve was offered the ultimate place of pride in the universe: to be like gods knowing good and evil. Mary was offered the ultimate place of humility, and her response shows that she was well aware of that fact: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
In this answer Mary made more of an impact on the history of the world than any woman – or man – before or since. Women both ancient and modern – Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Kamala Harris – all have made and changed history, but none of them, in the words of Bernard, were ever faced with a decision such that “the price of our salvation is offered to you, and if you consent we shall at once be freed…in your short answer we shall be remade and summoned back to life.”
In a matter of days the Church will again celebrate the greatest of all feasts – the Resurrection of Our Lord. But there is no Easter without the assent of a young Jewish maiden, upon whose decision all of humanity is utterly dependent, and to whom all of humanity needs to offer eternal gratitude.