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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.