The power of "yes"

Luke 1: 26 - 38 (4th Sunday of Advent, year b)

Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!

These words, spoken by William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, powerfully express the value we place on our freedom. Freedom, the ability to make our own choices and direct our own life, is something that we cherish, particularly today. We protest against any person or group that would curtail our freedom. We are willing to fight to protect it. Freedom is an incredible gift, given to us by God. Jesus came into the world for this purpose: to save us from sin and death. The story of the Annunciation, which we heard in today’s gospel, is an important lesson about the role that human freedom plays in God’s plan to save the world.

At times we can underestimate the part human liberty plays in God’s work of salvation. Are we passive in God’s work of salvation or are we active participants in it? I once watched news footage of a helicopter rescue mission during a flood. The water had risen so high that both people and animals had taken refuge on the tops of buildings. From the footage, you could tell that there was a large difference between the rescue of an animal and the rescue of a human being. In one scene, the helicopter saved a dog from the top of a building. The dog did not choose whether to be saved or not, the dog was simply rescued. This dog was a passive participant in the rescue. Things were quite different when a person was saved. I was surprised to see that though most people agreed to be airlifted by the helicopter, some people refused to be rescued. These people did not want to be taken away from their homes and possessions, choosing to take their chances with the rising waters. Unlike the dog, the people had to choose whether they were rescued or not. Though they would not have been saved without the helicopter, they played an active role in their salvation.

The story of the Annunciation teaches us that human beings play an active role in God’s work of saving the world. Jesus, like the helicopter in the flood, is necessary for our salvation. Yet, like those people on the roof, we need to participate in the rescue plan. St. Augustine tells us that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” Mary cooperated in this work in a unique way. In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a famous homily on the story of the Annunciation, focusing on the moment after Mary heard the angel Gabriel’s message about God’s plan for her but before she has said “yes”. He portrays heaven and earth as it were holding its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes?

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life. Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.

The Annunciation teaches us about the power of our “yes” in God’s work of salvation. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, on reflecting on St. Bernard’s homily, drew out this point.
After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free “yes” to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable “yes” of a human being.
Like Mary, we are active participants in God’s work of salvation. Like Mary, our yes to God’s plan of salvation has two powerful results:
  1. Our “yes” let’s Jesus into our lives. Jesus wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. This is something He cannot force on us. We let Jesus into our own lives when we say yes to praying each day, reading the Bible and going to Mass faithfully.
  2. Our “yes” allows Jesus to enter the lives of others. If Mary had not said yes to the Angel Gabriel, then Jesus would not have entered the world. We allow Jesus to touch the lives of those near us when we say yes to witnessing to him by word and example.

God will never take our freedom from us. He invites us to use our freedom for the incredible purpose of participating in His work of salvation. Here’s a very simply suggestion for how we can exercise the power of our “yes” and help Jesus enter in the life of someone close to you: invite a friend or family member who does not attend Mass to come with you to Mass this Sunday. Don’t pressure or guilt them into it, just invite. Perhaps this invitation is just what they were waiting for.