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

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Music for the Queen of Heaven : setting the Assumption psalms

Two services, two psalms

Because it’s such a big feast, the Assumption has two psalms, one for the Vigil Mass (night before), one for on the day, and they are very different. The first one is Psalm 131/132 and the second Psalm 44/45.

Vigil Psalm : The Ark of the Covenant

It takes a minute to work out the relevance of the Psalm 131/132, because it is overtly about the Ark in which Moses placed the stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments.  It explains that ‘we’ have found the Ark, we are bringing it to God’s house, everyone should rejoice, and above all we rejoice because God has chosen Zion, our holy mountain, as the place where he chooses to live from now on.  Practically speaking, the Response is very long (two lines-worth instead of the usual one); and in the first verse there are proper names, which are always slightly tricky unless they are well-known.  What the US translation calls ‘Jaar’ is called ‘Yearim’ in the other versions, so you have to decide how many syllables to give it.  The other proper name is Ephrathah, which is at least consistent, if difficult to pronounce.  I gave Ja-ar two syllables, because they must have doubled the ‘a’ for a reason, and three for ‘Ye-a-rim’ because if it’s pronounced like that, you can see why it might mutate to Ja-ar.  But I’m always happy to be corrected on this, and to change the settings for later years if anyone knows better than I do!

Our Lady as the Ark

So the Ark which we are so happy to greet is here representing the mother of God, as she too ‘contains’ the Word of God.  It makes sense, though I feel a little uncomfortable, as though I am thinking of Mary as a walking box rather than as an individual. However, the psalm is there as a reaction to the first reading (David leading the Ark into a special tent pitched for it, so that God can dwell with his people).  It is a great psalm, which we reserve for this feast, and it has beautiful shape and movement.  The direct speech in the first verse is balanced by God’s own words in the third verse, and the middle verse has a wonderful vision of the Church with the priests ‘clothed in holiness’ and the faithful all shouting out their joy.  As a nomad by marriage rather than by conviction, I especially like God’s words in the last two lines : ‘This is my resting-place for ever, /here have I chosen to live’, and the rhythm of that was what controlled the verse tune for me (UK/OZ/CAN) and meant that it came out with a swing as 3/4 instead of the balanced 4/4 for the US version.

The Vigil Gospel

On the whole the Vigil readings are fairly calm and low-key, culminating in the slightly odd choice of Gospel (when you think that this is the feast of the Assumption), where Jesus says that people who hear the word of God and obey it are more blessed than the person who just happened to be his mother (Luke 11,27-28).  I feel it is significant that his mother is not actually present at this encounter (it comes from a period when Jesus is on tour with the disciples), and Jesus is making a point about the obedience of faith rather than anything else.  One of our sons does stand-up comedy, and he talks about a stock character called ‘my Dad’, who is not actually anything to do with his father (or so he says).  The point of what Jesus says is for those who are listening, it’s not actually anything about Our Lady.

The Assumption : Day Mass

Now let’s move on to the Mass on the day itself, and the picture is wholly different.  Here the readings are gorgeous, opulent, exotic, mythic, terrifying, transcendental, and I could go on.  The heavens are open, showing the divine Holy of holies (think how the earthly one was always kept screened and only seen by only the High Priest only once a year), there is a ‘huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns’ (I’ve always thought that the fact the numbers don’t match only adds to the overwhelmingness of the spectacle), there is a woman ‘clothed with the sun’ (how?), standing on the moon (always shown as a sickle moon, so she’s not stable), crowned with twelve stars (think of the scale here)…and she’s in labour, and not just in labour but at the crowning moment (in all senses).  The dragon is waiting to seize and gobble up the baby, but God is also waiting (as he does for Mary’s assent, at the Annunciation), and he rescues them both as soon as the baby is born.  And that’s only the first reading.

Day Psalm : the Queen takes her place

We respond to this first reading with Psalm 44/45, which describes a queen dressed in gorgeous robes leaving her father’s house and coming to take her place on the king’s right hand.   She is beautiful, arrayed in gold and jewels, and she fits with the woman in the first reading.  And we are celebrating the Assumption of Mary into heaven, so that is who the Queen is: she leaves the earth and takes her place as Queen of heaven.

I think of this as ‘the Klimt psalm’ because it is so rich and exotic, and I wanted to make the music a little strange, without putting the congregation off.  The verses are short and irregular, and the different countries divide them up differently : the US version has four verses, which are basically two (more or less) matching pairs, where the other Lectionaries (UK and OZ) have standardised the lines into two verses of four lines.  The CAN one is completely sui generis : it lulls you into a false sense of security because it starts the same as UK and OZ but then branches out into five lines for v2 (including three which no-one else has included), and a third verse of only two lines (second half of v2 for UK and OZ).  This turned out to be completely un-compactable, sorry about that; you will need someone to help turn the pages.  So all the settings had to be different.

The music isn’t difficult, just strange and slightly alien (I hope), emphasizing the exotic.  Where I’m usually wishing for trumpets, double basses, saxophones or drums, in this psalm I’m trying to suggest a gong or cymbals, maybe gamelan or those little Indian finger-cymbals. It’s modal, to keep everyone slightly on the alert and aware.  In the whole idea of the Assumption, there is meant to be a creative mismatch between Mary, the woman from Galilee who accepted a job which God offered to her, and the mighty Queen, and I’m trying to pick up the strangeness of the whole thing.

The feast of the Assumption

I have to admit that I have problems with the two Mary feasts of the Assumption and (even more) the Immaculate Conception, because they seem to me to deny what they are meant to stand for.  If Jesus was not born of a real human being, the Incarnation is not real; if Mary was set apart by the Immaculate Conception from birth (not to mention conceived by a kiss between Joachim and Anna in some versions of her life), then she is not a real human being.  For the Annunciation and the Incarnation to work, Mary needs to be an ordinary person, a person like us. Similarly, if Mary was old and full of years and carried up to heaven in that old, maybe ill body (we have to die of something, even if it’s just anno Domini), why is she not allowed the new body which all the rest of us will have?  I know this is very heretical, and no-one will speak to me again, but I have to say I rather like the (not just) Eastern tradition of the Dormition, where Christ comes down to the body of his mother lying on her deathbed and takes her soul, usually pictured as a little girl, sometimes small enough to sit on Christ’s hand,  back up to heaven with him, instead of the mature woman’s body just disappearing.

The Assumption means taking one’s correct place

It seems to me that the feast of the Assumption is actually the celebration of something slightly different.  It is the moment when a human being becomes fully what God created him to be.  It is Tennyson’s moment of crossing the bar, or Hopkins’ moment when the poor potsherd becomes immortal diamond.

God made us to be like him.  That is actually a terrifying statement to make.  We find it difficult to see God in ourselves, and even more so to see him in the other people walking around with us.  But if we could see what God can see, if we can come to fulfil the potential he has given us, we are genuinely a royal priesthood, a kingly nation, a nation made up of kings and queens, all of us.

The Gospel for the Day Mass is the section of Luke’s Gospel that contains Our Lady’s Magnificat (chapter 1, vv 39 to 56), the only piece of extended speech of hers that we have.  This is her human apotheosis, when she grasps God’s plan being fulfilled through all history and takes her place in it willingly and joyfully.  Indeed from this day forward all generations have called her blessed.  Her suffering in later life must have been terrible, but at least she understood that God’s mercy would prevail.

At the end of her life, the Assumption is a way to explain what happens when a simple human being fulfils God’s plan and realises her potential.  It seems strange and exotic to us, we find it difficult even to put it into words, but it is what we are born for; and at least we can appreciate its beauty even now.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.