Just as the Blessed Virgin exemplified the virtue of humility, she also demonstrates to us what obedience should look like. Built on the foundation of that perfect humility, her obedience is one of the ways in which the former manifested itself. Though she had been elevated to a position above all other women, to the role of Mother of God, she continued to view herself as primarily a handmaiden of the Lord, and behaved as such.
The first instance in which this is strikingly visible is in the case of the Annunciation, and the response she gave to the angel Gabriel when he told her of God’s plan. She didn’t phrase her response in such a way that she said: “Very well, I accept.” She didn’t respond in such a way that she appeared to be accepting an extraordinary honour, which in fact she was. In such a situation a natural response would be to feel, frankly, rather flattered. Mary’s response was very supernatural.
Though she had indeed a choice in the matter, the freedom to refuse the message of the angel, she was entirely open to God’s will. Not just in the way that she accepted His will, because as we’ve said her response was phrased so, but in such a way that the implication was that there was no choice but the will of God. Her answer was not: “I accept,” but: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to your word.”
This is perfect obedience. While there is one reality, the one that we all have free will and that we therefore have the choice to do good as well as evil, there is also the reality of the Blessed Virgin and the saints who, while still retaining their free will, are at such a high level of holiness and so wholly conformed to God’s will that for them there is but one choice: to do what He wants.
Mary shows not only the utmost obedience to God directly, but also through her obedience to those He placed in authority over her; that is, St. Joseph. And this is really exceptional, if you consider it. Consider the fact that Mary was, through the grace of God, entirely sinless. Christ, because He was and is God, was also entirely sinless. The only imperfect member of the family was, in fact, that member who had authority over the other two: the head of the household, the father.
But just as Christ, God made Man, was obedient to His parents, so Mary was obedient to her husband even though she was immaculately conceived and he was not. She followed him, without question, though it caused her a great deal of discomfort and pain.
In obedience to both the leading authority and her husband she left her home of Nazareth to travel to Bethlehem, despite the fact that she was heavily pregnant at the time. There was no room for them at the inn; so she had no choice but to give birth to her child in a stable, and had no place to lay him but a manger.
Though St. Joseph is portrayed as having what you might call fears and doubts, particularly upon first learning that his betrothed is pregnant, there is no hint in the Gospels of any slightest murmur of complaint or worry from Mary. She is humble, obedient and silent.
Following the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the birth of the Christ Child, the Holy Family is called once again to the road, this time to escape from the King Herod. So soon after her last journey, which she undertook while pregnant, and so soon after actually giving birth to her Son, Mary is called to exile in Egypt. Again, there is no questioning, no doubt, no complaint. St. Joseph rises after his dream and they leave that night, swiftly and silently.
At the wedding in Cana Mary instructs the servers that they do but one thing: “Do whatever he tells you.” She stresses this. Whatever He tells you, you do. She said explicitly to them then; and she tells us just as firmly, through her example of perfect obedience.
Obedience is fundamental to the service of God. I often think that a holy obedience would be greatly feared by the devil. Mary’s Fiat is utterly contrary to his non serviam. And I think often also that if there were one vice that he would want to encourage in us, it would be our inclination to disobedience. He would want us to echo every day of our lives, with him: “I will not serve.”
Frankly spoken, obedience is a very painful virtue to learn. It requires us to suppress our own wants. It requires us to accept authority, to accept the fact that someone stands above us and has a better right to dictate how things should be done.
But, again: it’s fundamental. The first, and most obvious, instance can be taken in the instance of obeying the Church. There are those who say that they accept the authority of God but not the authority of the Church. The fact is that accepting the authority of the Church is just plain harder to stomach. To say: “I accept the authority of God,” leaves some ambiguity and room for variation. It can lead, in fact, to doing anything but accepting the authority of God. It can lead to us deciding what God wants, and it often does.
Accepting the authority of the Church, however, is ultimately accepting the authority of God. God’s commands are clearly spelled out. They’re laid out distinctly in the doctrines of the Church, and there is no getting around them. Understandably one would prefer to follow ‘God’ in oppose to the Church, because one can form his own God who commands only what the listener prefers to hear. God, however, who speaks through the Church, is unalterable. He has been and always will be. He won’t change for the times, He won’t change to make things easier. His laws are not dependent on the individual. They exist whether we do or not. To accept that is difficult.
The supposed arrogance of Catholics has been spoken of at many times. “How can those Catholics have such arrogance to believe that they and they alone possess the truth?” the query is put. This is rather ridiculous. For Catholics to believe that their Church and their Church alone possess the truth is hardly arrogant. It is the opposite of arrogance. It is a complete abasement of self and selfish desires, and a complete humility. In conquering pride Catholics admit that there is one truth, and that they must conform themselves to it. To acknowledge that there is a hard, unwavering, and everlasting truth, and that it will make no concessions for them, and then to submit to that truth is hardly arrogance.
Is it arrogant to say: “I am wrong, wholly wrong, and I have always been wrong, and will always be wrong?” That’s precisely what Catholics say. Being conscious of their own wrongness they look outside of themselves for the right. Catholics don’t say: “I and I alone possess the truth.” They say: “I do not possess the truth. The Church and the Church alone possess the Truth. Therefore there is nothing for it. I will have to abandon all my inclinations, all of my desires, all of my reasonings, all of everything, and submit wholly, humbly, and perfectly to the Church.”
This is hardly arrogance. It is arrogant to say: “I do not believe that the Church possesses the truth. In fact, I do not believe that there is such a thing as truth. Therefore, I will decide what is truth and what is not.” Those people are the ones who arrogantly grasp at power; Catholics relinquish their power and obey.
The arrogance and desire for power is not confined only to those who never accepted the Church, but those who once accepted it and came to deny. I have specifically in mind the women who, in contrary to the commands of the Church, have a hankering to become priests. They insist most stridently that it isn’t about gaining power, but a deep longing to serve God through His Church. I can’t accept that such is the case. They say: “I wish to serve.” The Church replies: “And I wish you to serve. Will you truly serve, forsaking all your own desires and accepting the authority above you? Then I ask you to do so. I ask you to accept the authority which says that the priesthood is beyond your grasp.” And then, despite all their earlier clamourings that they wish to serve without and reserve, they respond: “Non serviam.”