Mother Mary and Father Abraham: Vocation as Participation in God’s Incredible Plan

In this post for Vocation Bible School, I want to consider the call of the Blessed Virgin Mary as depicted in the first chapters of the Gospel of Luke.

First, let’s consider what the Evangelist Luke is about in the introduction to his story of the Good News of Christ. We begin with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a faithful couple who have not been able to conceive a child. Luke is here clearly setting up, in the minds of his listeners and readers, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth as a recasting of the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12. If you’ll recall, when we meet Abraham and Sarah, another elderly infertile couple, God comes to them, tells them of an incredible new plan for relationship between God and humanity, and promises them descendants, land of their own, and God’s abiding blessing. Through Abraham, and his promised descendants, the broken relationship between humanity and God that occurred in Genesis 3 will be mended and all nations of the world will be blessed. To savvy readers and listeners of Luke’s Gospel, then, there is a clear insinuation that God has a new plan and that it will come about through these people in a miraculous way. But the child born to this couple in their old age is not the one who will bring about this new plan: he is a forerunner, a prophet, a signpost for the one who is to come.

So a tension is set up: if not John, from Zechariah and Elizabeth, who is going to lead the way in this new plan? And what does God have in mind this time around? These questions are resolved in the next episode in the action, what we call the Annunciation.

Saint John Paul II has, in a number of homilies, compared the faith of Mary to the faith of Abraham, a comparison that fits well when we consider the adversity and suffering that they both must have encountered in the years after God’s plan came into their lives. But I want to focus, as St. John Paul II does in his homily at Nazareth on the 25th of March 2000, on the inaugurations of these divine plans and how God called both Mary and Abraham to join in their fruition.

“Both Abraham and Mary receive a wonderful promise from God. Abraham was to be the father of a son, from whom there would come a great nation. Mary is to be the Mother of a Son who would be the Messiah, the Anointed One. “Listen!”, Gabriel says, “You are to conceive and bear a son. … The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David … and his reign will have no end” (Luke 1:31-33).”[1]

This wonderful promise from God, for the salvation of the world and the blessing of the one involved in it, seeming comes out of nowhere. Mary, like Abraham, did not earn God’s favor by holy living or unshakeable faith. Like Abraham, who we simply know of as the son of Terah, God’s Good News and messenger comes to Mary for seemingly no reason. Now, Mary is renown for her holiness and faith, and Abraham is remembered by three world religions for his faithfulness. But these were not conditions for their invitations from God: they were their responses to God’s initiative. Further, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception would suggest that God’s reason for coming to Mary is clear: she has been set aside for this purpose, by God, to one day bear God into the world. The cause-and-effect here is tricky, but the claim still stands: Mary neither merited God’s invitation of relationship in Luke 1:26-38, nor did she merit freedom from the original sin common to the rest of humanity, just as Abraham was in no way deserving of God’s offer of friendship. God’s grace is gratuitous.

John Paul II continues:

“For both Abraham and Mary, the divine promise comes as something completely unexpected. God disrupts the daily course of their lives, overturning its settled rhythms and conventional expectations. For both Abraham and Mary, the promise seems impossible. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, and Mary is not yet married: “How can this come about”, she asks, “since I am a virgin? (Luke 1:34).”

God’s incredible new plan, to first bring all nations back into relationship through this one man, Abraham, and his descendants, and then to actually come into the world through this one woman, Mary, and walk among us for the sake of our salvation, is something utterly unfathomable for Abraham and Mary alike, truly unprecedented and unexpected, an enormous task. Yet, they both consent. They both accept God’s offer, despite their own plans for their lives, trusting that what is being offered is greater than they can imagine. There is the promise of blessing—or closeness with God—to be sure, but there is also an element of loss and a great burden of responsibility. Their lives are no longer their own, but now lived for the fulfillment of God’s plan and for the benefit of others. God’s plan for the world is disruptive: it breaks into our daily lives and calls us beyond our own concerns. It breaks into history and calls us beyond what conventional wisdom or societal expectations would demand. It bores into our hearts and turns our attention from ourselves onto others and orients us to God.

But why should Abraham and Mary give their lives over to God? Why should they live for countless others who they will never know, who have no claim on them, who have not earned their help? Mary tells us why in her incredible song of praise and prophetic prayer, the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.  (Lk 1:46-55)

God’s mercy and justice has been known to her ancestors, thanks to Abraham’s acceptance of God’s offer of relationship. Now, it is Mary who will be called “blessed” for generations to come, because God has looked on her, chosen her as a servant, and will now do great things for and through her. God’s promise to Abraham and his children will now be fulfilled in no small part due to Mary’s acceptance of God’s offer. And the truth of her statement unfolds through the rest of Luke’s Gospel, into his Acts of the Apostles, and out into the rest of salvation history.

What does Mary’s calling, or vocation, mean for us today? For many Roman Catholics, particularly women and girls, this episode from Luke has been held up as the paradigm of how they should respond to the sensation of a call from God: with meekness and obedience, as Mary did. For a number of women religious as well, the idea of their religious vocation as becoming a spouse of God parallels this Lucan episode. This is an understandable and inspirational personal interpretation: for who would not want to cast God’s plan for them, and their participation in God’s larger plan for salvation, in the same dramatic fashion as the Annunciation? Indeed, the wonder and inspirational power of this episode should be a model for all Christians, not just women or those who are taking religious vows, as they consider their role in God’s plan for salvation.

For, as Christians, are we not, like Mary, Theotokos, the one who bore God into the world, also called to bear God into the world?[2] Are we not also, like the Mother of Christ, called to bring the Good News of the Word of God, made flesh, into the reality of our lives? By virtue of our baptism, we are called to show Christ to the world, to be Christ in the world. But, also, in the tradition of Mary, we are called to help others to know Jesus and his life-changing and world-changing plan for the salvation of the world.

[1] Pope John Paul II, 25 March 2000, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/travels/2000/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_20000325_nazareth.html

[2] A mystical interpretation attributed to Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Dominican.

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