Fiat of Free Assent: The Annunciation and Mary’s Obedience

Obedience is not incompatible with freedom and can easily be conjoined with it.

‘Annunciation,’ Beatrice Emma Parsons, 1899
‘Annunciation,’ Beatrice Emma Parsons, 1899 (photo: Public domain)

There are many shades of meaning for the word “obedience.” A dog is obedient, but that is due to his training and not because he is free. A soldier must obey orders or face punishment. An athlete must obey the rules of the game. Any violation of the rules destroys the game’s integrity. Motorists must obey traffic signs if they want to avoid fines. 

The far end of obedience, where there is not a shred of freedom, is exemplified in The Godfather. As stated by Michael Corleone, “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.” 

How much freedom, we ask, did Mary exercise when she said, “Be it done unto me according to thy word”?

Obedience is not incompatible with freedom and can easily be conjoined with it. The expression “Your wish is my command” indicates a person’s eagerness to please another. In this case, love is lighter than liberty, indicating that in no way is obedience a weight or a burden. A pianist endeavors to achieve a musical interpretation that faithfully captures the intent of the composer. Such a synthesis is a blend of obedience and freedom. We should obey the Ten Commandments freely as well as cheerfully.

Obedience, in the best sense of the term, should be directed to what is good. This gives obedience a positive quality. The triad of obedience, freedom and a choice of what is good confers upon obedience the status of a virtue. Obedience without freedom is coercion or possibly enslavement; without a relationship with what is good, it has no positive moral value. Scripture informs us that Christ was obedient to his parents: “And he went down with them [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). Jesus, therefore, honored obedience by putting it into practice. 

It seems reasonable that Mary’s obedience was consistent with that of her Master. God gave us freedom and does not want to take it from us. Mary was not, as some theologians have suggested, a merely passive young woman. When the angel Gabriel greeted her in an extravagant manner — “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you” — she was deeply troubled and said, “What sort of greeting might this be?” Mary had a sense of her own individuality and had the courage to question the angel. 

She further questioned Gabriel when the prospect of being a mother seemed impossible for her, given her state of consecrated virginity: “How shall this be, since I have no husband” (Luke 1:29-35). But Mary was no pushover. After pondering what the angel disclosed, she gave her assent: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). 

Mary’s “Yes” was to her own heart as well as to God. Her fiat expressed a willingness to cooperate with God’s will. The term “cooperate” by no means denies freedom, but represents the cooperation of two separate wills. The most famous line from Dante’s Divine Comedy is “In his will is our peace” (E’n la sua voluntade è nostra pace). The harmony of our will with that of God’s must be good because it confers peace.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, recognizing the unique freedom of Mary’s assent, avers that “she uttered words which are the greatest pledge of liberty and the greatest charter of freedom the world has ever heard.” Catholic psychiatrist Karl Stern agrees, stating that “the stillness in the nod of assent was equaled in freedom only by the original freedom of the creative act.” 

“Be it done unto me” is the expression of freedom that is the human complement of the freedom of God’s creative act: “Let there be light.” God created the world out of his own untrammeled freedom. Mary’s “Yes” overturned Eve’s “No.” According to Pope St. John Paul II, “Mary, associated with Christ’s victory over the sin of our first parent, appears as the true mother of the living.’ Her motherhood, freely accepted in obedience to the divine plane, becomes a source of life for all humanity” (general audience, Sept. 18, 1996). 

Mary’s will, in choosing to serve God, is diametrically opposed to willfulness, which implies stubborn self-centeredness. Lucifer, who would not serve, was willful. It is a human tragedy to live as though one’s sheer willfulness can be the path to personal happiness. 

Venerable Sheen, in his book about Mary, The World’s First Love, cites a remark a certain M. Jaurès made to the French Chamber of Deputies: “... if God himself ever appeared before men, the first duty of man would be to refuse obedience and to consider him as an equal with us, not as a Master to whom we should submit.”

Ironically, he uttered this statement on Feb. 11, 1895, the 41st anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes. By contrast to Jaurès’ remark, G.K. Chesterton recalls a conversation he had with a publisher who said of someone, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” “Shall I tell you,” asked Chesterton, “where the men are who believe in themselves?” “Well,” said his companion, “if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause, Chesterton responded, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” His answer is brilliantly stated in his universally acclaimed classic Orthodoxy.

The Annunciation tells us that there is nothing better that we can do with our lives than to unite them with the God who knows, loves and cares for us. In the words of Adrienne von Speyer: “Her [Mary’s] obedience is the prototype of every future instance of Christian obedience, which draws from the life of prayer and the perception of God’s will” (Handmaid of the Lord, p. 27).