What Mary’s ‘Yes’ Meant

By Charleston D. Wilson

Have you ever thought about what you want on your tombstone? I’m from Alabama, and everybody in Alabama has given thought to what they’d like on their headstone. Call it morbid, of whatever, but it’s a big deal in the South.

Beyond the thousands of granite and marble “roll tides” and “war eagles” that dot the headstones across Alabama, some are truly hilarious. There is even a website that catalogs some of the best across the country, and a few really stand out. One reads, “I told you I was sick!” Another says, “I raised four beautiful daughters with only one bathroom, and believe it or not, still there was love.” And this one was good, too: “Here lies an atheist all dressed up and nowhere to go.”

Years ago I may have gone for a funny epitaph, but I’ve decided what I really want is just three little words that make all the difference. Seriously, I want these three words: “Full of grace.”

If a magazine covered your summer — our summer — what would the article say? What if the magazine had access to our inner thoughts, anxieties, and so forth? Imagine an article that leveled like this (and these names are made up):

Lynn said she’s losing sleep because her daughter’s eating disorder has taken a turn for the worse, and she can’t get her to an in-person counseling session because of COVID. Karen said Greg is ignoring her again; she wonders if he has a girlfriend again. Gus and Camille (well, those are real names) are going back to school in person; what if they or someone else gets sick? Pat still wonders how she is going to pay a mortgage without a job. Everyone is asking if we will ever be able to go to sporting events and concerts again.

Summer amid COVID has been brought to you by the Everly Brothers:

Bye bye love
Bye bye happiness
Hello loneliness
I think I’m gonna cry.

But please don’t cry quite yet.

Today we celebrate a great feast, calling to mind the very first person on earth to know, meet, and love our Lord Jesus Christ: Blessed Mary, as we call her, who is full of grace.

Mary found that real life requires real grace. What does it mean to be full of grace?

When we lived in Wisconsin, we immediately noticed that they take yard art to a whole new level. In Alabama it’s mostly bottle trees and bird baths.

But in Wisconsin, that’s only where it starts. When you renovate your bathroom, there’s a widespread tradition of taking your old cast-iron bathtub, standing it up vertically by the mailbox, and sticking a plastic statue of the Blessed Virgin inside — call it a bathtub grotto, if you will.

Some people put some blue plastic flowers in the tub, too, and some even put a spotlight on the whole thing. I’m not kidding. Fun fact: Wisconsin is the only state I know of where there is both a recognized Roman Catholic and Anglican shrine to the Blessed Virgin.

I recall, in particular, one “bathtub Madonna” that had a homemade sign affixed on top — probably about three feet by five feet — that wasn’t quite blinking, but in big blue letters read, “Just say yes!”

Just a few verses before the Gospel appointed for today begins, you remember Mary’s yes — when she proclaimed, “Let it be unto me according to thy word.”

I’ve basically said some version of that prayer hundreds of times throughout my life, albeit less poetically. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve said, “Lord, use me in some way” and “Lord, I’m ready, willing, and able to go to work for you” and so forth. I’m sure all of us here have prayed like that at some point, even if it was at a subconscious level.

But I’ve never ended that prayer quite like Our Lady did. Right after she said “Yes,” she broke into song and dance, the song captured in the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, the Magnificat.

When I’ve offered myself to God in prayer, honestly, I haven’t felt much of anything at all — kind of like the Wi-Fi was a bit iffy. But it turns I’ve been doing it wrong all these years. And I’ve been doing it all wrong because Mary’s “Yes” to God is altogether different from the way you and I most often, and rather habitually, say yes to God.

Mary’s “Yes” isn’t about volunteering a suite of skills, some heroic effort or accomplishment — or saying yes like it’s a vote for God.

Saying yes, like Our Lady did, is about first crashing into the truth that God first voted for us. Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

And saying yes from that viewpoint restores the right ordering of the most important relationship we will ever know. As St. John says, “We love because he first loved us.”

And it is precisely then — and only then — we find the threshold through which we, too, can become full of grace — frankly, how we get on the receiving end of God’s endless, indiscriminate love and mercy.

There is no question in my mind that Mary’s song proclaims the end of human exertion and stress, because it lays bare the good news of the gospel — how it really is possible to be accepted based not on our skills and track record — and how real life with a real purpose isn’t about becoming precious in God’s eyes, but  realizing we’ve been unconditionally precious in his eyes all along.

And that is what compels — even propels us — into action.

I love how Eugene Peterson, the evangelical author, contemporizes Mary’s song:

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!

It turns out The Supremes were wrong. You can hurry love, and you don’t have to wait. And that’s because God delights in instantly filling hungry people just like you and me with good things — with the guarantee that it is safe today — and every day — to say yes to his love and mercy. It is safe to come home.

Hail Mary, full of grace!

The Rev. Charleston D. Wilson is rector of Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, Florida.


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