The image is of a young woman in her bedroom. If you can tell from a portrait that a young woman is beautiful and pure, through and through, you can see it here. She looks like someone you’d want to know, at any time of your life. Young children would be drawn to her. If you’re college-age, she looks like someone you’d want to be friends with. This is the woman the guy who knows what’s good for him is going to want to ultimately settle down with. If you’re the parent of a college-age child, this is exactly who you want your child to hang around with – and would benefit yourself from having around. She’s unassuming, human in real and recognizable ways, complete with some rumpled bed sheets. She sits open and honest and listening and ready to begin the rest of her life in this moment, which could really be any moment.
She isn’t just any young woman. She is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Portrayed by the most luminous light is the angel Gabriel.
Our calls may not seem as dramatic as being asked to be the mother of the Savior of the World – but then again, they do often seem that way. And they seem that way because they are. Our calls are about good and evil, about our personal participation in Salvation History. About bringing Christ to our neighbor, at our office, in our homes. Yes, this is the greatest drama there is.
The image is fresh in my mind, as we encounter Mary at the start of the New Year with her Solemnity today. I saw it a few months ago at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. It’s an 1898 painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, one that the university’s new, young president, Fr. James Shea, made the graphical image of his inaugural events. And what better image to put up, front and center, on a Catholic university campus? Alone with her Lord, she is asked to do something life- and world-changing. Alone with the Lord, she’s asked to trust in Him.
And with her “freedom of choice” she says “yes.”
Discussing the image, Father Shea explained: “The angel did not say, ‘I will help you to achieve your dreams.’ The angel, in very few words, told her the truth. . .the truth about herself, the purpose of her life, the world in which she lived, the God who had set His heart upon her. And just then, when no one was looking, the whole world started over again.”
What person, especially a young person, doesn’t crave truth? And yet so often our culture, our universities – even our Catholic universities – are skirting that perpetual question, maybe bending over backward to avoid the glorious, eternal-life-saving reality that such a thing exists and is the reason for our being. A campus isn’t populated with young people who are going to be asked to give birth to the savior of the world, but they are called to live differently than Cosmo and FHM and postmodernism tell them they’re supposed to. And the Catholic campus exists to show them the way to do so.
Tanner’s Annunciation was printed up as postcard-sized takeaways at North Dakota’s only Catholic university. Included was part of a poem by Fr. J. Michael Sparough, S.J.:
Here it begins.
In such utter simplicity,
In quiet strength, at the appointed hour,
With the rippled rungs of time at your feet,And the broad lines of history at your back.
At the balance of His grace in your will,
Eve reborn, humanity to be redeemed
Through a child, from a virgin
Whose name is Mary.
This is a good image to start the new year with. If we are Catholic – individually and institutionally – we have to be fully oriented toward saying “yes.” We have to be open to helping our brother do the same. And, for Christ’s sake, literally: How can a young man or woman around the age of twenty ever possibly take up the mission of Christian life, to die to self in service of God, if he or she is never presented with the call in the first place? If he never sees a practical, adult modeling of how to live that call in the world? If he isn’t taught that he is being called, just as that young woman in the bedroom was?
Father Shea quoted Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic higher education, which instructs us that “it is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.” Truth, he said, realistically, “brings joy even when it challenges us, when it reveals to us that we are wrong, when it brings into focus our moral and personal failures, when it dispels illusions and rebukes false pleasures.” It’s what young people – indeed, all people – want and need. Channeling many of the young Catholics he’s ministered to as a high-school chaplain and pastor, he pleaded: “Give us the hard splendor of truth, no matter what the cost, over the velvet ravages of our own egos. Hold out to us the chance for self-sacrifice so that we might escape the quiet desperation of a meaningless life. Sing us the songs of the heroes of old, and then we shall ourselves clamor like champions; we have the spittle for it. Shape us, form us, prepare us to be leaders in the service of truth.”
It’s that plea that we need to hear this year. We need to put ourselves and others in the arms of our Blessed Mother, remembering that her fiat is the key to all the rest. We can only do that by letting her willingness to say “yes” help us do the same.