It’s always good to keep this feast, but better still to do so now.
Today’s calendar date, March the 25th, has proved magnetic to more than the Annunciation. It falls, consciously of course, 9 months before Christmas. In other measurings of time, it has been New Year’s Day, or the day of the vernal equinox, even the first day of creation. It has been thought to be the day of Christ’s Crucifixion or Resurrection, of Easter Day. Tolkien, unsurprisingly, could not resist it. In the long calendar of his epic sub-creation, it is the day the loathsome Ring of Power falls back into nothingness, Sauron is defeated and a wholesome human life begins again. It’s true that in the Gospel we’ve just heard there are many continuities, snatches of familiar Old Testament melodies: a visiting angel, an unexpected conception, a sign, talk of the favour of God, of a son of David and a throne of Jacob. History is flowing here, but as it rises to its climax, it mutates, it leaps to a new level: St Paul’s “fullness of time”. There is something quite new: a virgin conceives by the power of the Holy Spirit, will give birth as a virgin and remain a virgin. Still more, the Child, who is biologically, embryonically hers, is personally the Word of God, now flesh in her womb. The Incarnation occurs. From today, God is with us, not just eternally but in time; not just universally, but concretely, historically; not just divinely, but humanly; not just spiritually, but physically. And the truth of this is sealed by Mary’s new title of Theotokos, the God-bearer, the Mother of God. From today, there is something different, something new in the world, something capable of changing everything and making everything right. From within, outwards from a womb, from a fertilised earth, pushing up like the spring that’s so around us.
No wonder Luke’s description of the angel’s visit to Mary has for centuries entranced believers, and not only believers. Frescoes, icons, paintings, sculpture have blossomed round it like spring flowers by the base of trees. How did this event unfold, we wonder? What was she doing when the angel came? Was she indoors or outdoors? Working or resting? Drawing water, or weaving, or reading? In one ancient tale this young Nazarene girl has just been co-commissioned to weave a new veil for the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem’s Temple. She’s allotted the weaving of the cords of purple and scarlet. One day she goes to the well to draw water, and hears the words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”. Thoroughly alarmed, she returns home with the pitcher, and to calm herself resumes her weaving. The angel appears and the rest of the conversation follows. In Nazareth, today you find a shrine built over a well, and another over a house. The purple and scarlet of this tale look to the Passion of Christ, the cloak and the blood. Mary herself becomes the Holy of Holies veiling the Presence in her womb and for nine months inwardly weaving the human body of God’s Son. There is something that so holds us here: “The angel and the girl are met”, says Edwin Muir.
“Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.”
“My message to the British people”, said the Prime Minister the other evening, “is, stay at home.” It was when she was at home that Mary met the word of God. The decisive turning points of history, Edith Stein once pointed out, are determined out of the public eye: in reflection and resolutions, in secret annunciations. Couldn’t this be happening in our own home-bound days? New beginnings, again.
In the Greek Church, this feast is called the Evangelisation of Mary. Gabriel is an evangelist, bringing the Gospel to Mary, what we call the kerygma, the primary Christian proclamation, but focussed on her, her Jewish hope, her womanhood, her youth. Her response is actually an exclamation of joy, with the nuance, “Oh, yes, let this happen!” The angel is a catechist too, unfolding successively the grace of the Father, the coming of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit. And Mary is the first to listen, to question and consent, a thoughtful student of the ways of God. She is the prime, archetypal, pioneer believer, of faith seeking understanding. She stands at the threshold of the new Covenant. And over that threshold, which is her groundedness, through the open door of her free will, the Saviour comes. The Annunciation is the mystery, says St Thomas Aquinas, of the Lord’s ingressus, his entry into the world. “You have prepared a body for me…God, here I am! I come to do your will.” The dialogue of Mary and the angel is the Entrance Antiphon of the liturgy of redemption. It will continue with the preaching of the adult Jesus, the liturgy of his word. It will be consummated in his sacrifice on the Cross and issue in our communion with his risen body. And the rubric holding this liturgy is obedience. “I am coming to obey your will.” “Let it be done to me according to your word.” So the knot of the primal disobedience of Adam and Eve is untied by Mary and Jesus. His obedience begets hers, but hers too will be the matrix of his.” He “learned obedience” from his mother, as well as from his suffering. There are two voices singing here, distinct and yet entwined. It is a new song in a fallen world.
How much new obeying is being asked of us currently, civilly, socially! On its high plane, Mary’s obedience was literally life-giving, giving human life to the Author of life. May ours protect life too! Let’s try to live it with that responsibility in mind.
Again, how often nature and history seem visited by dark angels. How many cruel visitations this 2020 has endured already: bushfires, storms, floods, not to mention global warming. And now this. It’s hard not to hear the hoof beats of apocalyptic horsemen. But today’s feast can reassure us that there are other, gentler angels abroad. “Gabriel” means the “strength of God”, gentle strength. He comes, in Muir’s phrase, “feathered through time”. He comes to Mary and gently disconcerts her with another and better future. Even though Covid-19 is yet to hit us with its full force, and will alas sometimes be tragically lethal, people are imagining new beginnings, better worlds – “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” The Annunciation reminds us that the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit and a human will given to God form an irresistible combination, create irreversible new beginnings, are always the genesis of better things. And whatever happens here and now, or sooner or later, what happened in Nazareth can never be taken away, in time or eternity. “The angel and the girl are met”, God and us. It only needs our “yes”. Why not, this 25th of March? “Thy will be done.”
The last word from Mary, courtesy of another poet:
“It was and it wasn’t a choice.
Though I didn’t know why –
and how even less –
how could I, in the face
of such great gentleness,
not say ‘Yes’?” (Mary Reflects, Sr Laurentia Johns).
(Livestreamed from St Mary’s House)