Celebrating the Annunciation

A moveable feast

The feast of the Annunciation is in a difficult position in the calendar. It has to fall exactly nine months before Christmas Day, because Our Lady, being the perfect woman, had a perfect pregnancy and Christ spent exactly nine months in the womb, so it’s March 25th.  But Easter is not a fixed date like Christmas (more on that later), so every now and again, the Annunciation falls in Holy Week, when we are all concentrating on the end of the Lord’s human life rather than the beginning of it.   When this happens, the Annunciation is moved to the week after Easter.  In practice, this is a bit like having your birthday on or the day before or after Christmas, and any child will tell you that this is not ideal, as the bigger feast tends to swallow up the lesser. Easter is, of course, the biggest feast in the Church’s year; but you couldn’t have Easter without the Annunciation happening first.

Autres temps, autres moeurs, and autres temps as well

Interestingly, the Eastern Churches handle this differently, and they celebrate the Annunciation on its day even when it falls in Holy Week, even when it falls on Good Friday (and they have special liturgies for this).   The date of Christmas itself was fixed only some time after the fourth century, and of course there are lots of other considerations (symbolism, absorbing older feasts, typology) which come into play.  The Annunciation was a Wednesday in Advent and Christmas was celebrated at Epiphany for a while, the thinking being that the revelation to the Gentiles was the important event.  Easter, or indeed the Annunciation, was once regarded as the beginning of the New Year in many countries, and the Annunciation was such a beloved feast that it has its own pet name, ‘Lady Day’, which outlasted even the Protestants and the Puritans.  So for many years Lady Day counted as New Year’s Day, which is really getting confusing.

The importance of the Annunciation

Last year, the Annunciation had to be transferred, but this year it is back in March where it belongs, so it’s easier for me to write about it.  It celebrates the occasion when God sends an angel to Mary to ask whether she will have his baby, and she says yes.  She has very little idea what the angel is talking about, but her disposition is to trust God and to carry out what he asks.  It’s breathtaking and terrifying, when you think about it.  Any Jewish female would have known that she might be a potential mother of the Messiah, but I imagine it would be well to the back of your mind, like an American mother wondering whether her child might grow up to be President, and Mary is not even Joseph’s wife yet.  She is a young girl, doing normal things, when suddenly the divine irrupts into her life, and it is never the same again.

Supernatural event in a natural setting
Images of the Annunciation

There are an enormous number of pictures of the Annunciation.  I don’t know how on earth you could count scientifically, but I imagine that that the pictures of the Annunciation and the Virgin and Child greatly outnumber all other pictures from Mary’s life.  I would not dare to hazard a guess whether there are more Annunciations than Virgin-and-Childs.  But the Annunciation ones are particularly interesting because they show a setting before the angel arrives, with some evidence of what Mary was doing.   There are Annunciations with her in a kitchen, in a garden (full of flowers laden with symbolism), under a tree, praying, spinning, or (my favourite) reading.  I like the ones with Mary reading, just as I like the pictures of St Anne teaching her to read (in the Chora museum in Istanbul, among other places), because I think we tend to underestimate Mary.  I have listened to sermons where she is presented as simply an illiterate peasant,  this being fine because the power of the Holy Spirit makes her so holy that we don’t need to give her any human credit.  I don’t agree with this version.  After all, God had the whole of Creation to choose from, and he chose her.

Mary in control of the situation (Lippi)

I read a fascinating article interpreting the Annunciation as Mary’s #MeToo moment,  but in the end I disagreed with the conclusion.  It’s striking how totally different the Annunciation is from the scenes of Jupiter arriving to ravish beautiful young women (as Juno asks, in a beloved ffolkes cartoon, ‘Have you seen my husband?  He’ll be a bull, a swan […]or a shower of gold’, which I can’t find on line, but I know exactly where the book is if I were at home…).   The earlier portrayals of the Annunciation (say, pre-Baroque) have no sense of rush, intimidation or overwhelming power.  The angel is shown on the same scale as Mary, and in a lower position.

This angel is asking, not telling (del Sarto)

Usually, in these earlier Annunciations, the angel is kneeling at Mary’s feet.  God has sent his representative as a humble supplicant.  Mary is not shown as frightened or shocked. There is no assault here.  As the mediaeval English poem puts it:   He came al so stille/where his mother was/ as dew in April/ that falleth on the grass/….he came al so stille/ to his mother’s bower/ as dew in April/that falleth on the flower.

Another poem, maybe half a century older, the Ave maris Stella, makes it clear that the lady has agency.  The whole poem is a request for her to do things which will help us.  She is not a passive victim.

The gentleness of God

This is theologically correct, and also in keeping with the way God behaves in the Bible, and especially with women, unlike most of the other characters (Hagar and Sarah in Genesis, for example).   He woos but he does not force.  He smites enemies, but he does not bully his friends.  Forced consent is no consent, so God avoids approaching people directly (so we have the burning bush, the pillar of cloud, the angel messengers and so on).  And he waits for Mary’s answer.  Nothing can happen until she speaks.  Once she says yes, then ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow’ her,  and she will start a journey which ends with her as Queen of Heaven and Mother of God.  For now, God is waiting anxiously, like the slaves and the servants in Psalm 122/123 : ‘Like the eyes of a servant on the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are on the Lord our God till he show us his mercy’, but, in a thrilling inversion, it is God who is waiting for Mary to agree.  The Creator waits for the permission of one of his creatures.

Not a fair contest (Poussin)

Later portrayals (from the Baroque onwards)  of the Annunciation emphasize the power and might of the angel, the beauty of his wing, the breadth of his wing span, how tall he is, and the imbalance of forces gets worse as we move towards the present day.   To compare with the two earlier poems, here are two more modern.  W.B. Yeats in The Mother of God describes  a Mary who is terrified and daunted, who has been overwhelmed, much more similar to one of Jupiter’s victims, and Rupert Brooke’s Mary and Gabriel shows her being bullied into submission by ‘a will too strong for her/That held and filled and mastered all’, and she gives consent only because she is too tired to go on resisting.

This Mary looks like a patient at bay (Rosetti)
Do what I say or I’ll jump on you from a great height (Austrian, 18th-cent.)

We are back in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, not in the Gospels.  I think we can blame the Counter-Reformation (again) for some of this, with its emphasis on power and might rather than the love of God, and I think this leads to  people seeing the Mary of the Annunciation as a passive victim, but this is not part of the Gospel narrative.

Back to the source

Luke gives the longer account, which he must have got from Mary herself, as no-one else is present besides the angel.  (The story is also told in Matthew’s Gospel,  from Joseph’s perspective.)  God sends an angel to Mary, he comes to her (already slightly surprising, as she is alone) and greets her respectfully. ‘But she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be’.  There is no panic, but she is aware that something strange is happening.  She is brave, and no fool.  This action is typical of Mary; she is someone who listens, observes, and then thinks about the significance of what is happening. She ‘ponders all these things in her heart’, as it says later.

Look at these lovely curves, and the way the two hands are heading together (Botticelli)

The angel tells her not to be afraid.  This is a very human touch in this scene where the divine is breaking in upon the human.  Maybe Mary had to sit down.  Angels seem to start by telling people not to be afraid quite often (e.g. the shepherds at Bethlehem), but of course we don’t know what they looked like, and traditionally Mary’s angel is one of the archangels, so presumably impressive, even in a kneeling position.  Gabriel tells her that she has found favour with God and she will bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High and fulfil all the prophecies about the Messiah, which of course Mary recognises.  She knows the context; she knows what this means.  Her response is a question about the practicalities : ‘How can this be, since I have no husband?’  and Gabriel answers that God will see to all that, nothing is impossible for him and tells her about her older, barren cousin’s pregnancy to illustrate the point.  And then the crucial moment : ‘And Mary said,’ Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’  And the angel left her.’

What we don’t know, of course, is whether there was any other conversation or discussion, but I think probably not, because what would you say?  The angel tells Mary what the plan is, and she only has to say yes or no.  The most important things we say tend to be the simplest: I love you, will you marry me, goodbye, please take care; and yes or no.  And she’s not just a vessel (whatever the early Church Fathers say about this, with their strange physiological ideas), or a passive victim in any way; it is hard to think of anything more active and engaged than having a child and looking after it yourself.

Just hold the baby, while I down a devil : Mary in a more active role
The psalm for the Annunciation

The psalm we sing at the Feast of the Annunciation is not the Magnificat, Mary’s great song of praise (see an earlier blog) when she visits Elizabeth, but the simpler and lower-key Psalm 39/40.  I think of this as the Samuel psalm, because it reminds me of the little boy Samuel being repeatedly woken in the night by God’s voice calling him, and he doesn’t know what to do, until Eli tells him to answer, in the same words that we use as the Response. ‘Here I am, Lord’, and that’s too short for a workable psalm response, so it goes on,’I come to do your will’.  Repeatedly in salvation history, God calls a person for a special job (Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Jacob…..Peter, James and John, and so on); and the best answer is just,’Here I am’.

I like the line where it says ‘You do not ask for sacrifice[..]but an open ear’, because there was a charming if peculiar early idea that Mary conceived Jesus through the ear (the Word of God going in through the ear and bearing fruit in the womb).   This is like Rabelais’ frozen words whizzing through the sky across the sea and being audible only when they melt, the Word made flesh indeed.  I also like the line where the psalmist sings of treasuring God’s word ‘in the depths of my heart’, which feels very appropriate for Our Lady.

I’ve set it as simply as possible.  Everyone has the same version except the US, where the words are more convoluted, but at least the Response, like Mary’s, stays short and simple.  And it doesn’t come back to the tonic at the end (unusually), because the point is that this is the start of something, not its conclusion.  Mary doesn’t know where she is going, but she has set her foot upon the road.

The Annunciation is not the celebration of the Incarnation

It is important, when we celebrate the Annunciation, that we don’t get sucked into just celebrating the Incarnation.  In one sense they are the same event, but the emphasis is different.  We celebrate the Word made flesh above all at Christmas,  his birth-day, when he appears as a separate individual, but at the Annunciation, what we are celebrating is Mary’s agreement, her leap of faith, her conception of the Baby who will stay her secret for a while, and belong to her only,  for only those nine months, in a very special way.  The Annunciation is Mary’s feast.  Hail, Queen of heaven.

someone’s holding up the words, she must be joining in the singing
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Spring saints and their psalms : David, Patrick and Joseph

Springing into action

Everything seems to burst into activity in the spring, from beetles to bushes. Everything and everybody is busy. Church-music writers are no exception. There’s all the Lent music to sort out, all the Easter music to spruce up (and there’s so much of it, and people get through it all in one night! It’s just like when you spend ages cooking and the family wolfs it in ten minutes); – and then there are the special feasts which need music as well.

wild flowers by path to Saint Non's spring
Spring flowers on the path that leads to St Non’s spring (St David’s mother)
St David, first saint of spring

So March is a busy month anyway, and it starts with a bang with St David having his feast day on March 1st. The old weather proverb says of March, ‘In like a lamb, out like a lion’, or the other way around, depending on whether it starts with gales or with gentle breezes. It’s hard to say whether Saint David is more of a lion than a lamb, as we know not much about him.   And he is from a long time ago, the sixth century, which means we have very little solid information, except that we know he was an archbishop and Welsh.   He was living in turbulent times (true of all three of these saints), and he was a man of authority, so he must have needed lion qualities as well as the lamb-like ones which his preserved words suggest.  We have his last words, from an eleventh-century account, which means they are respectable, if not guaranteed, and they are worth noting : “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”  He sounds like a good man, humble and cheerful (and he includes women in his audience, which is very good to hear, and not to be taken for granted).

Welsh cakes : the link in the text even has a recipe!  Brilliant food for travellers

There are surprisingly few pious legends attached to Dewi Sant (hooray, not being part of the Counter-Reformation or female a great help here), and he is the patron saint of Wales, so he can represent all the good things about that country, personifying Welshness for many of us.  You can wear daffodils or leeks on St David’s day : one lifts the heart, the other makes wonderful soup for the still chilly weather.  You can bake welsh cakes to mark the day.   If you get the chance to visit St Davids in Pembrokeshire you will find the smallest cathedral in Britain, in a most beautiful setting, nestled in a little dell.

Psalm for St David (1)
tree like Saint David
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

What psalm does the Church offer us to celebrate Saint David?  It’s Psalm 1, which introduces the whole Psalter, describing the contrast between the good man and the wicked (with a certain amount of glee, it has to be admitted).  The good man is like a tree planted by flowing waters.  This feels entirely appropriate for the Welsh patron saint, with Wales being honeycombed by beautiful brown flowing waters (one of the things which fascinated Gerard Manley Hopkins about the countryside near St Beuno’s, which is further north but still Wales).  The setting I’ve done for this psalm for England and Wales has a little quotation from The Ash Grove in it, because it’s a beloved Welsh folksong.  I haven’t specifically set St David’s psalm for the other Lectionaries (because he’s a national saint only for Wales and England technically) but it’s the same psalm as for Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, so in fact everybody has it if they need it.

St Patrick was actually British

Saint Patrick is the next national patron saint to come by in March, on March 17th, and this year he gets bumped by the Second Sunday of Lent.  I don’t imagine that will stop anyone celebrating Saint Patrick’s feastday, however, but the specific Mass will be held on another day!  Saint Patrick is even further back in time than St David, in the fifth century, and there is an enormous amount of information available about him,  some of it popular rather than necessarily reliable.  The basic facts appear to be that he was British, captured as a boy and enslaved in Ireland among the pagans but God looked after him.  Some years later he escaped and studied to become a priest, eventually discerning a vocation to return to Ireland as a missionary, and spent the rest of his life there, founding and building churches (and performing miracles, like ridding Ireland of snakes).  No flowers for Patrick (or vegetables), but there’s always the shamrock.

the trouble just one snake can cause
Psalm for St Patrick (116/117)

What psalm is assigned to him?  It’s psalm 116/117, a really short psalm, with the emphasis on St Patrick as a missionary :’Go out to all the world and tell the good news’.  Two things make this especially appropriate.  One is that the Irish diaspora has done precisely that;  and the other is that because of the Irish diaspora, lots of countries celebrate this feast day, and it’s in both the UK and the OZ Lectionaries.  The same psalm is used for Ninth and Twentyfirst Sundays in Ordinary Time Year C, so everyone else also has it available.   It’s so short (two two-line verses) that I’ve simply set it as a rollicking rise and fall, and you don’t even need a compact version as it takes up so little space.  And it’s snake-free.

St Joseph, who always comes third

Saint Joseph has more than one feast day, but his two main ones are March 19th (the Church’s celebration of his feast) and May 1st (feast of Joseph the Worker).  He is the patron saint of all sorts of places and people, including Canada, and everybody has him in their Missal, as his feast is classed as a Solemnity and everyone celebrates it.  He is a fascinating and surprisingly elusive figure, figuring in only two of the Gospels and not in any of St Paul’s epistles.  When God needs to tell him something, he sends him an angel in a dream, to warn, to advise or to reassure, and Joseph always acts with great promptitude and efficiency, leaving for Egypt immediately in the middle of the night, for example.  The focus is never on him, but despite his permanent third position, by date of feast and in the popular imagination (‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’, which you only ever hear said in one very particular rhythm and cadence),  he’s a very important saint.

Saint Joseph with Mary and Jesus
Mary knitting, Saint Joseph talking to the baby

He is portrayed as an old(er) man, but this seems to have arisen mainly out of the Church’s hang-ups over sex, and there’s no textual justification for it at all.  It’s always fun to check what he’s doing in any portrayal of the Holy Family.  Sometimes he’s asleep (worn out because he’s so old), sometimes he’s just standing guard (leaning on a staff, because he’s so old).  I like the pictures where he’s looking after the baby because Mary’s asleep, and there are a couple of wonderful illustrations of the journey into Egypt where he’s carrying the sleeping baby  and leading the donkey, while Mary grabs a quiet fifteen minutes with a book.

Saint Joseph at work at home
everybody usefully occupied

March 19th has been his feast day since the tenth century, but it’s not a very good date really as it often falls in Lent, which casts a damper on the day and means you can’t have any alleluias. I’ve set his Acclamations for US and CAN with the new top-and-tails that sound more celebratory.  Like St David, he has a flower, the lily for purity, sometimes sprouting from the staff he needs to hold him up (because he’s so old).

Psalm for St Joseph (88/89)

The psalm, like the readings, emphasizes Joseph’s descent from David and Abraham, which technically isn’t relevant as ancestors of Jesus.  It is a celebration of God’s love and the promises of the covenant.  This psalm does come up on other Sundays, but there always with a Response along the lines of ‘Forever I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord’.   However, for St Joseph, we have ‘His line shall continue forever’.  I feel that this is either emphasizing something we should be skating over,  or concentrating on celebrating David rather than Joseph.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Time for a cuddle

I like the slightly grumpy Joseph who appears in some of the older poems and carols, notably the Cherry Tree Carol, where when Mary asks for some cherries as they travel through an orchard and Joseph (who is too bent to reach, because he is so old)  snaps that whoever gave Mary the baby can get her the cherries.  A miracle occurs, and there are various different versions (it’s possibly a composite of three old ballads) but Mary gets the cherries, the unborn baby makes a prediction about his birthday, and Joseph apologises.

Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree

It often seems to be possible to make a case for a different (possibly more appropriate) psalm on particular feast days.   Saint George’s feast day (in April) doesn’t use any of the psalms that dragons feature in, which is a shame;  we don’t sing the Magnificat at the Annunciation, though surely it would be apposite, and we don’t have one of the (few) sea-going psalms for Sea Sunday, which I regret every year.  Joseph’s psalm is a good one, but I think I would have given him one of the more ‘craftsman’ psalms, like Ps 89/90, with its double iteration of ‘Give success to the work of our hands’, or possibly better 133/134,  which starts ‘O come, bless the Lord,/all you who serve the Lord, /who stand in the house of the Lord’  and goes on ‘Lift up your hands to the holy place/ and bless the Lord through the night’, because it always makes me think of Joseph, standing so patiently watching and protecting in all those Nativity scenes, but awake and alert to do whatever God asked him in the night.

Three great saints; three cheerful psalms.  They come up on our journey through Lent like primroses in our path, encouraging us and lightening the heart.  They aren’t always Lent saints, because of dates shifting around; but they surely are saints for spring.

flowers on a piece of medieval embroidery
blossoms and leaves sprouting even outside the box



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