From Sermon 4, “In Praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (ca. 1150)
You have heard, O Virgin, the announcement of a great mystery, and you have heard how it will happen. You have double reason for astonishment and rejoicing. “Rejoice,” therefore, “O Daughter Zion, and be exceedingly glad, O Daughter of Jerusalem.” And since to you have been given tidings of joy and gladness, let us hear of that joyous reply we long for, so that the bones that have been broken may rejoice. You have heard what is to happen, I say, and you have believed. Believe also the way you have heard it is to happen. You have heard that you will conceive and bear a son. You have heard that it will not be by a man, but by the Holy Spirit.
The angel is waiting for your answer; it is time for him to return to the One who sent him. And we, too, are waiting, O Lady, for this word of mercy, we who are overwhelmed by misery under a sentence of condemnation. The price of our salvation is being offered to you. If you consent, we shall be set free straight away. In the eternal Word of God we have all been made, and look, we are dying. By one small word of yours in answer we shall be restored and brought back to life.
Adam asks this of you, O loving Virgin, poor Adam, exiled from paradise with all his poor children. Abraham begs this of you; David begs this of you; all the holy patriarchs, your very own fathers, beg this of you, as do those who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death. The whole world is waiting, kneeling at your feet. And rightly so, for on your lips hangs the comfort of the afflicted, the redemption of captives, the deliverance of the damned; in a word, the salvation of all the sons and daughters of Adam, your entire race.
Give answer quickly, my Virgin. My lady, say the word which earth and hell, and heaven itself are waiting for. The very king and Lord of all, “he who desires your beauty,” is eager for your answer and assent, by which he proposes to save the world. You have pleased him by your silence; you will please him even more by your word.
If you let him hear your voice, then he will let you see our salvation. Is not this what you have been waiting for, what you have been weeping for and sighing after day and night in your prayers? Answer, O Virgin, answer the angel quickly, or rather, through the angel answer God. Speak the word and receive the Word. Offer what is yours and conceive what is God’s. Breather one fleeting word and embrace the eternal Word.
Why delay? Why be afraid? Believe, speak, receive! Let your humility be clothed with courage, and your reserve with trust. In such circumstances, O prudent Virgin, do not fear presumption, for although the reserve which makes you silent is attractive, how more important at this juncture is it for your goodness to speak.
O Blessed Virgin, open your heart to faith, your lips to speak, your womb to your Creator. Behold, the long-desired of the nations is standing at the door and knocking. Oh, what if he should pass by because of your delay and again in sorrow you should have begun to seek for him whom your soul loves? Rise up, then, run and open! Arise by faith, run by the devotion of your heart, open by consent.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to your word.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was one of the most influential preachers and spiritual writers of the Middle Ages. An important leader in the Cistercian reform, he was abbot at Clairvaux and an important advisor to other church leaders. St. Bernard’s feast day is August 20.