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What does ‘the obedience of faith’ really mean?

Two verses from the Word of God frame our reflection this afternoon as we gather for this celebration of the Lord's Eucharistic Sacrifice and in gratitude for the presence of the Dominican Retreat House in McLean and for the apostolate of the Dominican Sisters these past fifty years. Why these two verses? Because they are so basic and so crucial to our responding to Jesus Christ's desire that we be drawn into and live a more personal union with Him within the community of His disciples, the Church.

What are those two verses? The first of these: "…the obedience of faith," is found twice in Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans; the section in which this verse is quoted for the second time forms today's second reading. The second verse is found in Mary's response to the angel Gabriel at the end of today's Gospel account according to Saint Luke: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

Let us return to the first of these two verses, to the phrase "the obedience of faith." In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read: "To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to 'hear or listen to') in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment" (n. 144).

To submit freely to God - to submit to His Word and His Will - is to give the "yes" of our intellect, our emotions, our heart, our soul, to give the "yes" of our total being, however eager that can be sometimes, however challenging and difficult at other times, and however excruciating at yet other times, not often maybe but very real when it happens.

Talking about giving "the obedience of faith" is one thing; doing so is quite another. Yet, even as the poet Dante reminds us, "In His Will is our peace."

The Virgin Mary is the best of models of what saying "yes" means. I quote the Catechism: "The Virgin Mary most perfectly embodies the obedience of faith. By faith Mary welcomes the tidings and promise brought by the angel Gabriel, believing that 'with God nothing will be impossible' and so giving her assent: 'Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word' (n. 148)….Throughout her life and until her last ordeal when Jesus her son died on the cross, Mary's faith never wavered. She never ceased to believe in the fulfillment of God's word. And so the Church venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith" (n. 149).

When Mary gave her "yes" of faith, "the obedience of faith," she was in effect placing her life at the service of God's plan - of His Word and of His Will.

God the Father so desires that we be drawn into deeper union with Him through Jesus Christ His Son in the power of the Holy Spirit! God's eternal Son took on our human nature and was born of the Virgin Mary. "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (cf. Jn 1:14). This pure gift of love from God to us we will so very soon relive as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. Why did God's Son give His "yes" to the Father's Will? Why did He come among us, true God and true man, live among us, suffer and die for us, rise for us, and now, having returned to God His Father, intercede for us? Why? So that each one of us could be saved, that is, by giving our free "yes" to His redeeming and saving Death and Resurrection and thereby letting Him save us, we can be drawn into life and union with Him in this earthly life and inherit eternal life.

So, God's Plan is simple: "let Me draw you closer to Me through your union with My Son, Who is likewise drawing you closer to Him and to His Heart. Walk in the love of His Heart. Give that love to others. All I need is your "yes," your "obedience of faith." I repeat, how do we give our "yes"? By placing our lives at the service of God's plan.

Mary is not only the best of models, she is also the first and best disciple of the Lord and, so, becomes for us, the best of teachers. In Mary's example of life, in her message, in her image, we find the basic key or outline for becoming truly holy, for deepening our union with Jesus: placing our life at the service of God's plan. And this is true for each one of us, for each of us is truly a disciple of the Lord.

Recall that Mary's words tell us of her placing her life at the service of God's plan. Did we not hear at the end of the Gospel reading: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your Word!" There, she placed her life at the service of God's plan: "Your will be done in me." Notice, she and we must place our life at the service of God's plan, not ours. Now often with our human limitations, with all good intentions, we propose to God our plan, like David in today's first reading: "Let me build a house for you." A wonderful thought! It was his plan, not God's. And so God told King David, as He tells us: "It's not your plan that must be done, but Mine." And holiness, true union with Jesus, comes about only in being one with God's plan.

So, as we draw closer to Christmas, let us make time each day despite the frenetic schedule of this week to be with Jesus, in the company of His Mother and ours, and with Saint Joseph. Let us reflect on and deepen our willingness to be at the service of God's plan - His Word and Will, for each one of us, in whatever circumstances He may lead us. Jesus will be with us, so too Mary His Mother and ours, and good Saint Joseph - and maybe even a trusted friend who loves and cares for us. When we kneel before the Infant Savior this Christmas, let us renew, willingly and freely, our "yes," our "obedience of faith." Amen.

We also gather to give thanks to God in this Holy Mass, in this celebration of the Holy Eucharist, for the presence of the Dominican Retreat House in McLean and for the Dominican Sisters who staff it. How fitting that we do so during this celebration here, for the very word Eucharist in Greek means "to give thanks"! Yes, we are grateful for this presence and apostolate in our midst for these past fifty years, beginning in July, 1961.

We give thanks to God and also to the Dominican Sisters. I welcome their President, Sister Anne Lythgoe, and all the Sisters currently missioned at the Dominican Retreat, including Sister Agnes Bernadette Gott, the Retreat Ministry Director. Dear Sisters, how good it is for all of us to be with you and to celebrate with you.

Is not the ultimate goal of every retreat house or spiritual life center the desire of providing an atmosphere and a place where men and women can come to hear God's invitation of love and to respond with their "yes," their "obedience of faith"? People come at different stages of their spiritual journey, in joy and in sorrow, in uncertainty, in doubt, in whatever condition they are at the moment.

Dear Sisters, in the name of thousands who have been your guests these past fifty years, I thank you for providing an atmosphere of welcome, care, counsel and witness, for providing a place that is comfortable, beautiful and, yes, has good food. (The latter is very integral to a successful retreat center). In so doing, you have made possible for each of them to hear again God's invitation: "Come closer!" and respond with a renewed "yes," with a more willing "obedience of faith." I thank you as well in my own name.

I also express gratitude to your benefactors and friends without whose support of prayer, volunteer assistance and financial help you would not be able to continue this vital service to God's people.

Yes, we give thanks for the past fifty years! We beseech the Lord for His unfailing assistance in the future, asking that our prayer for you and the Dominican Retreat be strengthened by the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, good Saint Joseph, Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine de Ricci. Yes, for all that has been, "Lord, we thank You!" And for all that will be, "Lord, yes!"

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011