St. Bernard’s Sermon Super Missus
THE ANNUNCIATION AND THE BLESSEDVIRGIN’S CONSENT
An Advent Homily by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor of the Church
The angel awaits your reply, for it is time that he should return to God, Who sent him. We, too, are waiting, O Lady, for a word of mercy–we, who are groaning under the sentence of condemnation. See, the price of our salvation is offered to you; if you consent, we shall at once be delivered. By the Eternal Word of God we were all created, and behold we die. By your short answer we shall be refreshed and recalled to life. Adam, with all his race–Adam, a weeping exile from Paradise, implores it of you. Abraham entreats you, David beseeches you. This is the object of the burning desires of the holy fathers, of your fathers, who are still dwelling in the region of the shades of death. Behold the entire human race prostrate at your feet in expectation.
And rightly, for on your word depend the consolation of the wretched, the redemption of the captive, the freedom of the condemned, the salvation of your entire race, of all the children of Adam. Hasten, then, O Lady, to give your answer; hasten to speak the word so longed for by all on earth, in limbo, and in heaven. Yea, the King and Lord of all things, Who has greatly desired your beauty, desires as eagerly your word of consent, by which He has purposed to save the world. He whom you have pleased by your silence will now be more gratified by your reply.
Hark! He calls to you from heaven: “O most beautiful among women, give me to hear your voice.” If you let Him hear your voice, He will enable you to see our salvation. And is not this what you have sought for, what you have prayed for night and day with sighs and tears? Why, then, delay? Are you the happy one to whom it has been promised, or “look we for another”? Yes, you indeed are that most fortunate one. You are the promised virgin, the expected virgin, the much-longed-for virgin, through whom your holy father Jacob, when about to die, rested his hope of eternal life, saying: “I will look for thy salvation, O Lord” (Genesis 49:18).
You, O Mary, are that virgin in whom and by whom God Himself, our King before all ages, determined to operate our salvation in the midst of the earth. Why do you humbly expect from another what is offered to you, and will soon be manifested through yourself if you will but yield your consent and speak the word? Answer, then, quickly to the angel–yes, through the angel give your consent to your God. Answer the word, receive the Word. Utter yours, conceive the Divine. Speak the word that is transitory, and embrace the Word that is everlasting.
Why do you delay? Why are you fearful? Believe–confess–receive. Let humility put on courage, and timidity confidence. It is certainly by no means fitting that virginal simplicity should forget prudence. Yet in this one case only the prudent virgin need not fear presumption, because, though modesty shone forth in her silence, it is now more necessary that her devotion and obedience should be revealed by her speech.
Open, O Blessed Virgin, your heart to faith, your lips to compliance, your bosom to your Creator. Behold, the desired of all nations stands at the gate and knocks. Oh, suppose He were to pass by while you delay! How would you begin again with sorrow to seek Him whom your soul loveth! Arise–run–open! Arise by faith, run by devotion, open by acceptance. Mary speaks. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word.”
Humility is ever the close companion of Divine grace, for “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” She answers humbly, therefore, that the throne of grace may be prepared. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” She is the chosen Mother of God, and she calls herself His handmaid. Truly, it is no small sign of humility to preserve even the remembrance of the virtue in presence of so great glory. It is no great perfection to be humble when we are despised; but it is a great and rare virtue to preserve humility in the midst of honours. If, deceived by my apparent virtue, the Church has raised me, an insignificant man, to some small dignity, God permitting it, either because of my own sins, or those of my subjects, do I not immediately, forgetting my past deficiencies, imagine myself to be that which men, who see not the heart, have reputed me to be? I hearken to fame, and attend not to conscience. I forget that honour is rendered to virtue, and take the virtue for granted because of the honour, and so esteem myself the more holy when I find myself in an exalted position. Let us listen to the words of her who, though chosen to be the Mother of God, yet laid not aside her humility. “Behold,” she says, “the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done unto me according to thy word.”
Fiat mihi (Be it done to me). Fiat is a mark of desire, not of doubt. In saying. “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” she expresses the disposition of one who longs to see the effect, not of one who doubts its possibility. Fiat may also be understood as a word of petition, for no one prays unless he believes, and hope to obtain. God wishes to be asked for what He has promised, and perhaps promises many things which He had predetermined to bestow, in order that the promise may arouse our devotion, and that what He intends to give gratis we may merit by devout prayer. Thus, our gracious God, Who desires the salvation of all, as it were, extorts meritorious works from us, and while He strengthens our will by His grace, He wishes that what He gives freely we shall labour to obtain.
This prudent Virgin understood when to the prevenient grace of a gratuitous promise she joined the merit of her own prayer, saying: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”
Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word. May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word. May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived–that is, clothed in flesh–which may remain. May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.
Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time. “God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1)–to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures. Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.
Be it done unto me–not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me. In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.” Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me–“Be it done unto me according to thy word.”