Reflection for Annunciation

On the Feast of the Annunciation

This air, which, by life’s law

My lung must draw and draw

Now but to breathe its praise,

Minds me in many ways

Of her who not only

Gave God’s infinity

Dwindled to infancy

Welcome in womb and breast,

Birth, milk, and all the rest

But mothers each new grace

That does now reach our race –

Mary Immaculate.

These lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins, when thoughtfully considered, offer within the framework of poetic meditation, an aesthetic catechism comparing the Blessed Virgin Mary to the air we breathe. They turn one’s mind at once to that most important of all the New Testament texts about Mary, the narrative of St Luke’s gospel concerning the Annunciation. This text is arguably the one that is best known and most loved throughout the Christian tradition. Artists, sculptors and painters of renown have chosen to depict its subject with all its potential for delicacy, for mystery, for drama, for conveying both uttered and unuttered dialogue.[1] The Fathers of the Church, theologians and spiritual writers have left us innumerable homilies, commentaries and meditations on its content and implications. Even so, the sheer power of the unforgettable text penned by St Luke with diagnostic precision and iconographic artistry remains unmatched not least because it enshrines what God intended us to receive as His Word in order to communicate the very mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

The genius of the evangelist lies in his skill for combining two complementary elements. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and flowing from painstaking research confirmed by the writer himself, he records in elegant Greek the historical occurrences relating to the life of Jesus. In doing so, he encapsulates the data of faith they contain, namely, the dogmas that emerge from the profound revelation of the mystery of salvation. Within the span of several verses, the central event of salvation history is explained. Mary, a humble maiden of Israel – authentic Daughter of Zion – receives from an angel an alarming announcement that she is chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, descendant of David and Son of God. Together with the prologue of the gospel of St John, it is the most important text of the New Testament for the Incarnation. It remains, as well, the foundational text for the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, the virginity and the divine maternity of Mary.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her: “Rejoice, O you having been perfectly transformed by grace! The Lord is with you.”[2] She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her: “Be without fear, Mary, for you have found grace with God. For behold! You will conceive and bring forth a son, and you will give him the name of Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end. Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done: since I do not know man?[3] Thereupon the angel said to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will take you under his shadow.[4] That is why the one who will be born holy[5] will be called: Son of God. Know this: your kinswoman Elizabeth has also, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called the sterile is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.” “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” said Mary, “let what you have said be done to me.” And the angel left her.[6]

Whereas in this passage the angel addresses her as Κέχαριτομένη “the one having been perfectly transformed by grace,”[7] Mary gives her consent at the end of the narrative naming herself “handmaid of the Lord”[8]. These two titles give the clue to the nature of each Christian vocation. Essentially it consists in welcoming the irresistible grace of God that empowers the humble openhearted recipient to give consent gladly to whatever He requires. “The power of the Most High will take you under his shadow” takes on fresh significance for all who place themselves in a filial relationship with Mary. Furthermore, the angel’s salutation “the Lord is with you” signals the unique intervention from God necessary to bring about a paradox that Mary remain a virgin yet be, at the same time, a mother: the mother of the Messiah.

The definitive meaning of this maternity is made clear to us by St. John in the Passion narrative of his gospel. Jesus’ words to his mother and the “disciple whom Jesus loves”[9] reveal his intention to constitute Mary as mother of each person of faith. The faithful disciple, one whom Jesus loves, is also a witness to the mystery of the Cross for that is where he or she becomes a son of Jesus’ mother. It is not the disciple but the woman, Mary, who plays the key role. The disciple has a primary mission surprisingly not of preaching the gospel, but to first become the son of Mary. Therefore, for all who are Christ’s faithful, it is more important to be believers before being apostles. To have a filial relationship with Mary, the archetype of the Church, is the first and most fundamental aspect of one’s whole existence as a Christian. It is no wonder, then, that Chiara Lubich, could say: “People today, usually proud of their scientific and technological progress, completely caught up the sometimes frantic rhythm of daily life, don’t have the time or the desire to listen to others telling them about God, whom they say they don’t need. Thus today, we need witnesses more than teachers.”[10]

The embrace of motherhood by Mary at the Annunciation opens the mind and heart to this need. It is realized best when, in the womb of the heart, residence is given to the Body of Christ in Holy Communion. Just as Mary nurtured him in her womb, Christ is carried within each communicant in the sacramental species. In filial relationship with her, one may draw her Son “like breath” into the heart, as she “mothers each new grace”.

Be thou, then, O thou dear

Mother, my atmosphere,

My happier world, wherein

To wend and met no sin;

Above me, round me lie

Fronting my froward eye

With sweet and scarless sky;

Stir in my ears, speak there

Of God’s love, O live air,

Of patience, penance, prayer:

World-mothering air, air wild,

Wound with thee, in thee isled,

Fold home, fast fold they child.[11]

Rev Dr. Peter Waters. Reflection for the Feast of the Annunciation.

25 March, 2017

[1] Giotto, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Van Der Weyden immediately come to mind.

[2] Καϊρε κεχαριτωμένε ό κύριος μετά σού (Lk 1:28) has been translated in the Vulgate as Ave gratia plena, Dominus tecum, construed in English as Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. The original has profound nuances lost in both translations: The greeting Καϊρε is “Rejoice!” rather than “Hail”. The tense of κεχαριτωμένε is past perfect participial passive meaning having been perfectly graced, in other words, at this moment totally grace-filled as a result of the past action of God’s election. This single word sums up the divine action that has transformed Mary. Moreover it is now the name by which Mary is addressed, and, as expressed by Luke, κεχαριτωμένε is unique in the entire bible, reserved solely for Mary.

[3]The Greek: άνδρα αύ γινώσκω literally is “I do not know man” which means “since I am a virgin”. For text analysis see: De La Potterie, I. sj, (1997) Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant. N. York: Alba House.

[4] This is an allusion of the cloud (symbol of God) which covered the tent of the Ark of the Covenant. Now Mary will be the new Ark of the Covenant because she will bear in her womb the Son of God.

[5] Cf. “non ex sanguinibus, neque ex voluntate carnis, neque ex voluntate viri...” Prologue, Gospel of St. John.

[6] Lk 1:26-38

[7] See footnote 1 above.

[8] Ίδού ή δούλη Κυριου. Lk 1:38

[9] John 19:25-27.

[10] Interview, Jan. 2001.

[11] Hopkins, G.M. The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe. Works, 1918.