The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.Luke 1: 26-30
Some days ago, a friend shared with me a lecture that Jacques Barzun had given in 1969 entitled “Present Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life.” It had just recently been rediscovered and was published this month in “The American Scholar.” In it he speaks of, for all their questionable tendencies, the valid critique of western culture that inhered in the revolutionary movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Given the secular and rational-functional reductionism of our culture, we have come to identify usefulness with human value. And if this was true in 1969, it is even more true today.
Today, nine months to the day before our next celebration of Christmas, we celebrate in the Church the Feast of the Annunciation. It is in the incarnation of Jesus that the value of human life is truly revealed, and it is in the story of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary of her call that the sacred significance of every human life is made manifest. As Mary, every human person is to bear God to the world as a unique child of God. The mystical tradition terms this “the birth of the Word in the soul.” Luke’s description of the encounter of Mary and the angel Gabriel has universal applicability. We can see in that description our own experience of our life as call and responsibility for that call.
Gabriel greets Mary with the words: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Luke tells us that Mary is “greatly troubled at what was said.” These words open us to one of the greatest paradoxes of human experience. Freud pointed out that we tend to repress traumatic experiences as well as the very strong drives we have of sex and aggression. Our unbridled needs and our capacity for evil and aggression truly frighten us. Yet, as afraid as we are of our capacity for evil, our capacity for goodness frightens us even more. As Mary is greatly troubled to hear herself proclaimed as full of grace and that the Lord is with her, so too are we. Far more threatening than the fact that we are capable of doing evil and harming others is the truth that we are blessed, full of grace, and a capacity to bring Jesus into the world in a unique way.
The reason this truth is so threatening to us is that it make us responsible for that call. The authenticity of our life is based not on societal conformity and success, not on our ability to adapt, but rather on our unique capacity to exist, to stand out, to be and to do in the world in a way that is original with and unique to ourselves. It is to incarnate again Jesus through the living out of our own life call.
One of the greatest diversions in human experience is the evasion of our responsibility for our own lives. It is easier to settle, to depreciate and diminish ourselves, to make ourselves small than to fully accept responsibility before God for the unique task and assignment God has given us in the world. It is easier to be a nice, successful, or good enough person than it is to really receive God’s call to us to be and to do what is ours to do, and then to give everything we have and are to the “doing” of that life task.
The norms of our culture tell us that at a certain age it is time to kick up our feet or to just fade away quietly. Yet, when we try to live authentically, we are very aware that, whatever our age, we have not yet been fully faithful to God’s call to us, that we have yet to give birth to the Word at the core of our being. I am very happy that, unlike so many others, God has given me more time to hear the Word spoken to and within me and to give it flesh, for I am a very slow learner. I have not yet fully lived the call I am or finished the work that God has given me to do. And I now realize I have little time to waste.
I often think of my Godson Keith who lived out his call, who so beautifully did his work for others in a mere 22 years. In his illness and in his death, he taught so many of us about the love and grace of God and that to live is to live in gratitude for and toward all. As for myself, now in my 8th decade of life, I feel as if I am still struggling to give voice to the Word that God would speak through my life. Perhaps by the end, there may be at least a subtle whimpering of that Word.
Today’s feast reminds us that it is that we are vessels of grace and beloved of God that evokes quality of life. As Jacques Barzun says, being useful is not inherently satisfying. It is only something “immediately felt.” This is feeling and intuition not merely as emotion but as lived experience. In faith we acknowledge that we experience our life as meaningful and fulfilled to the degree that we hear announced in the core of our being that “the Lord is with” us. Jesus is not merely a one time historical figure, but rather the Word constantly being born within each of us. We have not been created in order to make it through life, or to keep busy, or to be useful. We have been created to bring Jesus into the world in a way no one else can. While the awesomeness of this responsibility may feel at times terrifying, it is also our “way” to fulfillment. We often avoid the reality of our life call because, as Mary, we fear it is impossible to us. Yet, the Lord tells us, as her, that “all things are possible for God.”
Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus that there is only one real philosophical problem and that is suicide. Yet, another way, the way of belief, of looking at the same “problem” is as a problem of responsibility. Perhaps in our time as never before, we live in a culture and a world that evades personal responsibility. Our life as call is a serious business. Each of us entertains, in all senses of the term, so many ways of avoiding the fear and trembling that come with the awareness of the significance of our life as a call from a loving God who knows our true goodness and potential. To accept that we are full of grace and that the Lord is with us makes us responsible for the mission, the task, for which God has given us life. To accept this responsibility is what it truly means to have faith, hope, and love, what is really involved in realizing our distinctively human life.
And in truth, the quality of oneʼs life resides in something immediately felt, not reasoned about—something that does not have to be sought by the indirect path of usefulness. I know that the whole tendency of our talk is the other way. We think that being useful, that being wanted, is inherently satisfying. We say so often enough. But I doubt it, in the light of what the new generations are doing and looking for. Our talk of service is not hypocritical, but it is a vain effort at reassuring ourselves.Jacques Barzun, “Present-Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life,1969,” The American Scholar, March 4, 2019