In a recent conversation with my boss, Bishop Barres reminded me that on March 12 the Church would
celebrate the 400th anniversary of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As a former member of the Society of Jesus, I
reflected upon the spiritual legacy of the patron saint of retreats, and the master of spiritual
discernment. His most famous prayer begins: “Take Lord, receive all my liberty, memory,
understanding, and will.” These words changed the world because he really meant them. Sad to say,
utter submission to God is an unpopular attitude, even for many Christians. Yet for Roman Catholics,
surrendering ourselves unreservedly to God is how we discover our hearts’ desire. This is the central
meaning of the Feast of the Annunciation.
As we have observed before, Biblical names are fraught with meaning, and indicate the sort of role
various individuals play in salvation history. The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary involves as
many as seven important names: Gabriel (“God’s Strength”), Mary (“Beloved”), Joseph (“God will
give”), Jesus (“Yahweh saves”), Zechariah (“God remembers”), Elizabeth (“God’s promise”), and John
(“God is gracious”). The saints recognized the play on words, e.g. that the archangel who signifies the
strength of God should herald the coming of the “God of strength” (i.e., Christ). Mary, the highly
favored (beloved) of God and wife of Joseph, would be given the privilege of bearing the Son of God:
Jesus, who would “save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). God also remembers the holy couple:
the priest Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, to whom he graciously promises the blessing of a son in
their old age. Remember as well the historical context of the names. Joseph is the name of Jacob’s
favorite son, over whose house Jesus would reign forever as king. Elizabeth is the name of the wife of
Aaron the priest, brother of Moses and father of the priestly tribe. Why are these details so important?
Because the sacred author is implying in just a few words that Jesus, the Son of God, exercises the
roles of king, priest, and savior, according to the divine plan that has been at work from eternity.
The mysterious working of grace in the lives of the saints, particularly the Blessed Mother, is
beautifully expressed in today’s artwork from the 15th
-century Italian artist Alessandro Botticelli. St.
Thomas Aquinas asks whether Mary was free to reject the divine invitation to be the Mother of God. If
not, she would be no more than a puppet on a string, and if so, she could thwart the will of God.
Thomas’ answer is yes, Mary always acted according to free will, yet no human action can ever impede
the purposes of God. Yet grace makes one capable of cooperating with God and achieving one’s goal
in life—union with him—and the Blessed Mother was full of grace. Now consider the painting. Of
course, I might be reading more into the painting than the artist intended, but I have to think it
significant that the very middle of the painting is the unmistakable partition between the angel in the
outer room of the house, and Our Lady’s chamber. Both figures assume the proper disposition: Gabriel,
with respect to the dignity of the one chosen to bear the Son of God, and the Virgin herself, who
humbly—and deliberately—embraces the part she will play in the mystery of the Incarnation. The
wall, I believe, emphasizes the inviolability of human freedom. Instead of strings that manipulate the
body, God sends rays of light through the left window to penetrate the soul, enlightening the mind,
strengthening the will, and deepening the “memory” (self-awareness) of each human being. Let us pray
that we too may freely embrace God’s will for us, and discover true joy.