They say that if you want to make God smile, tell him your plans! Flippant, yes, but a reminder that life doesn’t always work out as planned, that God might have other ideas which, however startling or overwhelming they may seem, in the words of St Thomas More, shall, indeed be best. In these last few months, most of us have seen a complete overturning of plans, or at least, a considerable change. And, as always, it can be quite difficult to see God’s providence at work whilst we’re in the middle of things, only later, afterwards. For now, we see the tapestry only from behind, with the loose ends, the knots, a picture of confusion and incompleteness.
When we read or listen to the account of the Annunciation, we can forget that this ready acceptance of God’s invitation wasn’t a one off – though obviously the vocation being offered and the gift being given were beyond compare – but the high point in a pattern of believing, living and loving. Whatever Our Lady thought the future held for her, her will was habitually directed towards God’s will, so that her words, Let what you have said be done to me, came naturally to her lips, because they expressed her continuing obedience. Being able to say yes to this big ask was possible because there was something in the way she lived her life which was turned towards God, seeking his will in small things, so that it became her habit.
Today, in what we rejoice to call England’s Nazareth, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham. We recall once again that time, when Richeldis was given a vision of the house where the Annunciation occurred and was asked her to build the same in Walsingham, to serve as a perpetual memorial of that moment, when the angel Gabriel, expressing the utter graciousness of God, asked the young Mary to be the Mother of God’s Son.
The original building is no longer with us, though the site is, but it seems to me that what really matters is the bringing into the present the essential qualities of that holy house, truly a place where God is recognised, honoured and served. It was the home where the young Mary conceived God’s word in her heart and then in her body.
After the message had been delivered to Mary, the gospel tells us, The angel left her. In other words, she wouldn’t always feel that presence, have that assurance, but is left alone with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity (BXVI, The Infancy Narratives, p37). There would be dark moments on her journey: Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy, through to Calvary and everything in between. It is then that she would need to remember and dig deep into what God had spoken to her through the angel. Not just the words, Rejoice, so highly favoured, but also Do not be afraid, the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. It is all God’s work; it is all his gift.
The reassurance given to Mary is the reassurance that each of us is given: Do not be afraid This word is given to everyone when the waters of their soul are disturbed by the hand of God. How much God makes his plans depend on people! The smallest response of ours to God’s invitation can bring about something great in the building up of his kingdom. We’re often all too conscious of our weakness. But Our Lady’s complete surrender to God’s will was in weakness, too, as well as in strength. She was weak enough to acknowledge the power of Him who asks, but strong enough to offer her life without reserve.
Do not be afraid
How much we all need to hear and receive that word, to be able to recognise that our saying no to self and yes to God, in love, is always, without exception, fruitful. When we come to Walsingham, either physically, or in spirit, let’s never forget that Our Lady stands beside us, remembering her promise,
Whoever seeks my help there will not go away empty-handed
Even if we don’t know what the future holds, we know, like her, who holds the future.