“Let it be done to me according to your Word.” (Luke 1:38)
These days we tend to weigh our worth by how much we are accomplishing. We needn’t be a high-level executive, over-achieving college student, or Silicon Valley techie to know this. It is also true of parents busy juggling work and kids, and even older people looking back over their lives sometimes wondering what they have to show for themselves. Even if we do not have overweening ambitions, most of us are prone toward looking at what we have not done, creating bucket lists of things to do before we die. All those things to do, places to see, projects to finish—and only so much time! The race is on.
Today’s Gospel is a summons to hit the pause button. For what we find in this precious moment in the life of Mary is not a rush of activity, certainly not an accomplishment in any ordinary sense. Rather, there is a quiet moment, a passive moment. Mary, strong and active and courageous a woman though she was, and destined to know both the joys and the tragic struggles of life, knew also what it meant not to act solely on her own, but to let herself be acted upon, graced, by God.
There is a difference between Mary’s passive moment, and mere passivity. Passivity is the surrender of our agency to a more powerful person or force; in passivity we yield our freedom. But a passive moment is different: it is an expression of our freedom. It is a motion. Just as every breathing forth is preceded by the passive inhalation, a breathing in, so every free, active motion is preceded by a free passive motion, Mary’s fiat—be it done to me according to your word—is her breathing in, a “yes” expressed as a passive motion, undertaken by a human being quite capable of moral agency in her own right. Out of her freedom, she allows God to speak, and she listens. In this passive moment of quietude, she takes in what is being said to her, and she ponders it so as to accept it. She lets God in.
This yin-yang motion between the passive and the active starts in the womb, where, through our mothers, we undergo a prolonged passive “moment” before birth, and concludes in our death, another passive moment. The saintly former Jesuit Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, offered the following words upon his own prolonged passive moment, following a debilitating stroke that would lead to his death:
More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.
—these words, from a man of extraordinary life activity, but who, in his wisdom, knew that the end was a moment of complete surrender—a passive motion.
As the festival of the Nativity draws near, and the quiet of winter envelops us, may we remind ourselves of the importance, the final real value, of the passive moments that can lead to profound inner peace, freedom, and, as in the case of Mary, even unimagined good.