“She said yes!” is commonly heard in engagement stories, echoing the excitement and joy of making the decision to have one’s life forever complemented with another in marriage. As we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation on Saturday, the Church rejoices in Mary’s acceptance of God’s place for her in His divine plan of the salvation of mankind. Of course, Mary’s “yes” to God is not the only such instance in Scripture; on the contrary, each protagonist’s story within its pages involves his or her responding to the will of God throughout history, from God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” to Adam and Eve through his instruction to the exiled St. John the Evangelist to “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Just like each person in Scripture, we too can share in the delight of accepting God’s will for us through our faith and the surrendering of our personal desires and wants to Divine Providence.
Every book of the Bible recounts at least one instance of God calling a prophet, judge, king, or another figure, no matter their status, to a higher purpose. I particularly enjoy the story of the boy Samuel, whom God called three times before the future judge and prophet, finally understanding Who kept waking him, answered. All of these accounts are more than nice stories—they serve to illustrate the different ways of answering God’s call as well as how God continues to guide us after we answer. The biblical theme still rings true today: “I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
On the occasion of the Annunciation, Mary’s “yes” undoes Eve’s “no” to God. Through Mary, the Word was made flesh and she became the new “Mother of the Living” (CCC 489). This motherhood extends to us all! As a result of Mary’s “yes,” she became a tabernacle of the living God now made man. Christ’s complete embrace of humanity during His earthly ministry still affects us today. We are called to allow Him to more fully enter into our lives just as He did in the Virgin’s womb. By creating space for Christ, as Mary did, we are enabled to fully surrender to the Divine Will; our “yes” to God can then echo Mary’s crucial response, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
How shall we respond?
At the Archdiocese of Washington’s Rite of Election this past month, I was blessed to observe over a thousand adults, teens, and children be presented to Cardinal Wuerl in order to be baptized or confirmed as Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington this Easter. They, like Mary, have said “yes!” to God’s invitation. It’s a beautiful witness to see the participants’ formal expression of their desire to become Catholic before their loved ones, sponsors, and the Church. The Rite of Election kicks off a final period of intense spiritual preparation much like our experience of Lent. This call to conversion, Donald Cardinal Wuerl noted, “is a visible sign that women and men, young and old, from all walks of life, are continuing to respond to our Lord’s invitation: ‘Come, follow me.’” As baptized members of Christ’s Body, we are called to offer our support, love, and prayers for these catechumens and candidates as each continues his or her faith journey, that all may strive to remain close to the Lord Who has called them to Himself.
Our “yes!” does not occur in a vacuum. Even the already baptized are called to be a light for each other as each of us experiences darkness in our lives. No matter our insecurities or doubts, no matter our past failings or unworthiness, God still continuously calls to us, ever lovingly, ever patiently, ever gently, ever earnestly. Mary had her own questions when the archangel Gabriel dramatically announced God’s plan for her. If you’re like me, you want all the details before making a decision! But, as we read throughout scripture, one’s trust in God is never misplaced. God can—and does—do great things through us if only we allow ourselves to be like “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.” May we, then, always share the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection, the hope that we share as we receive Communion, as we journey to the Cross, and as we profess—and experience—God’s love. By the grace of God and the support of each other, may we, at every moment of our lives, join with the whole Church and the heavenly host to praise God for His mercy and goodness: “‘Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has destroyed death, and brought us light and life!’ No wonder we [reply], ‘Alleluia!’”
“Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse” — these words, taken from the Divine Praises of our Church (a prayer that is often used at the end of Eucharistic Adoration), remind us of the important role that St. Joseph plays as the patron of the Universal Church.
St. Joseph is the foster father of Jesus, “most chaste spouse” of Mary, but he is also our guide. There are exactly zero words of St. Joseph recorded in all of scripture, yet the role that he plays is not to be underestimated. He teaches us how to live in obedience, persevere in holiness and chastity, and love well.
The obedience that this holy patron showed to the will of God is nothing short of extraordinary. He did this first by accepting the message of the angel to take Mary as his wife, then by protecting his family as he fled with them to Egypt, but most importantly, in those quiet, unlogged hours at home with Mary and Jesus in Nazareth. Although his life did not unfold as he would have anticipated, his obedience and docility to God’s will allowed him to play a crucial role in the life of Christ and ultimately in the story of our salvation.
St. Joseph’s perseverance in holiness and chastity sets a very clear example before us. His life is a compelling reminder for us that to do the will of God, we need only be obedient to the present moment and faithful to the higher calling that is ours by nature of our baptism. In a world that sees chastity as outdated and nearly impossible, he reminds us that pursuing it is not only important for our own lives of virtue, but salvific for others.
St. Joseph also teaches us how to love well. The gentle striving of St. Joseph, both as he led Mary and Jesus, and now as he leads our Church, can be summed up by these words of St. Josemaria Escriva, “God always asks more: His ways are not the ways of men. St. Joseph, more than anyone else before or since, learned from Jesus to be alert to recognize God’s wonders, to have his mind and heart awake.”
Several years ago, a spiritual director suggested that I start to pray every day to St. Joseph for my future husband. With the following prayer, I beg his intercession to not only allow me to persevere in obedience and chastity, but also with the sure knowledge that he will protect my future husband and family.
Guardian of virgins and father, St. Joseph, to whose faithful custody Innocents itself, Christ Jesus, and Mary, Virgin of virgins was committed; I pray and beseech thee by each of these dear pledges, Jesus and Mary, that, being preserved from all uncleanness, I may with spotless mind, pure heart, and a chaste body, ever serve Jesus and Mary most chastely all the days of my life. Amen.
May the intercession of St. Joseph allow us to persevere in obedience, chastity, and love!
*Ite ad Joseph is Latin for “Go to Joseph” and admonishes us to turn to St. Joseph’s intercession and guidance.
Question for Reflection: Following the example of St. Joseph, how might you grow in your ability to be obedient to the present moment?
“They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm.” -The Passion of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity
What psalm did you sing, Perpetua, when you were thrown into the arena to face the wild beasts? I can’t help but wonder as I reread the martyrdom account of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, whose feast we celebrate today. The calm and joy of both women astounds me.
What psalm would one sing in the face of death? And how could one find the courage to even sing?
Martyrdom contradicts everything we are told to value in this world. It entails giving without reserve, sacrificing all, even the greatest good, which is life itself. And yet the martyrs are a stark, beautiful, and perhaps even uncomfortable proof of what sacrificial love can look like. They help us to readjust our eyes to the eternal.
“Who are the martyrs?” Pope Francis asked in his message for the beatification of the Spanish Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. “They are Christians won by Christ, disciples who learned well the meaning of ‘loving to the end’ that took Jesus to the Cross.… Christ goes before us in love; the martyrs have imitated him in love to the end.”
We read in the first letter to the Corinthians just what we are called to when we are called to love. “Love is patient, love is kind,” he begins. But what else does Paul write? That love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” The martyrs, such as Perpetua and Felicity, give testament to this love.
What sets Perpetua and Felicity apart for me is their role in the Church not only as martyrs, but as women, specifically mothers. The account of their martyrdom includes text from Perpetua herself and is one of the few documents we have from the early Church of lay women martyrs. How beautiful that we celebrate the witness of these two women on the same day. Together, they give us a rich portrayal of grace by experiencing suffering with joy and remaining perpetually faithful to Christ. The account of their martyrdom notes that even those who had come to watch the martyrdom shuddered “seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing.” As a new mother myself, re-reading their account makes their sacrifice all the more visceral. Both Perpetua and Felicity lost everything by human standards to face their martyrdom: family, wealth, possessions, children. Yet both gain everything by God’s standards: eternal life resting in the beatific vision.
Both women live up to their names. Perpetua remains steadfast to her faith. While Felicity, which means intense happiness, joins the Christian martyrs with joy and serenity, praising God for the early birth of her child so that she could join her companions in martyrdom. The example of these women seems baffling to our world. How could a mother give up her child? How could a person give up wealth, possessions, titles, security? Apart from God, these sacrifices make no sense.
So what can we learn from the martyrs? “The Holy Fathers say: ‘Let’s imitate the martyrs!’” Pope Francis continued in his message.
Does this mean we must forfeit our lives, give up everything, if we are to follow Christ? Some have been and still are called to give their physical lives for the Christian faith. However, I think we can all live out martyrdom in many different ways. Pope Francis expands on this understanding. He continues, “We always have to die a bit to come out of ourselves, of our egoism, our wellbeing, our sloth, our sadnesses, and open ourselves to God, to others, especially the neediest.”
In other words, we can join in the sacrifice of the martyrs, and of Christ for that matter, each and every day by offering up our own prayers and hardships—by dying to ourselves first and foremost. While we may not be called to give our physical life for our faith, we are always being challenged to give up anything in our lives that is not love. Lent is a particularly intense time of this dying to self, or mortification, in order to grow closer to our neighbor and to Christ. Additionally, we are called to endure this process of “everyday martyrdom” with joy and hope—something Perpetua in particular models beautifully with her singing.
Let us follow the advice of St. Augustine as we continue our pilgrim journey: “Sing as wayfarers do—sing but continue your journey. Do not grow tired, but sing with joy!”
Question for Reflection: In what ways can you die a little to yourself this Lent?