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The Annunciation . . . A Moment In Time That The Church Celebrates Every Day

July 7, 2021 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

One of the most remarkable dimensions of divine Providence is that while the great plan of God for the salvation of mankind unfolds on a scale spanning very many centuries and encompassing billions of souls on a physical stage reaching to the furthest galaxies, the specific course of this grand scheme He has chosen to make dependent upon events that transpire in a matter of just seconds or minutes in the most intimate of surroundings.
Few events fit this description as perfectly as does the Annunciation — a private conversation between an angel of the Lord and a young Virgin scarcely two minutes in length that changed the fate of man forever. If many of our Protestant friends find it difficult to understand why in the rosary we say the Hail Mary fifty-three times, this is reason enough: that each Hail Mary is a commemoration and celebration of that fateful conversation, the outcome of which has saved the world.
Three times a day, too, the Church universally commemorates the Annunciation with the recitation of the angelus, gently inviting the faithful wherever they are to join in this prayer of thanksgiving, reminded by the peal of church bells. There is, moreover, a reverent gesture for the moment of the Incarnation with which the Annunciation climaxes and concludes when at Sunday Mass our profession of faith in this sacred event is marked by a genuflection (Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) or bow (Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite) during the singing or recitation of the Nicene Creed.
Across the ages, countless Catholic artists have sought to express visually the Annunciation, exploring its full magnitude, meaning and implications from a multitude of perspectives.
There is something quite “nuptial” about the Annunciation, for by the Incarnation God wedded humanity to Himself. Many late medieval painters allude to this quite directly by depicting in the background of their Annunciation portraits the bed chamber of Mary as a symbol of the bridal chamber of Christ the Divine Bridegroom.
In many depictions of the Annunciation, there is a special joy in the Archangel Gabriel’s face, his demeanor like that of a messenger sent to convey on behalf of his master the latter’s wedding proposal to the maiden He hopes to marry. For in a sense God through His angel Gabriel was indeed asking for the hand of Mary in the marriage of the Incarnation. And as Virgin of Virgins and Queen of Virgins, Mary is over and above all other consecrated virgins the Bride of Christ par excellence, the ultimate exemplar for the Church as the Bride of Christ.
A painting of the Annunciation attributed to Petrus Christus in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (ca. 1450) exemplifies well this jubilant nuptial vision of the event. Mary stands at a doorway as Gabriel comes before her, her face radiant with a gentle smile, raised to meet the archangel’s gaze as he courteously announces to her his message from the court of Heaven. Mary’s vesture suggests that of a queen, trimmed in ermine, considered a symbol of purity, and at her feet the first step of the doorway is inscribed in Latin with the opening words of the Marian antiphon of Eastertide, the Regina Caeli: “Queen of Heaven, rejoice.”
St. Gabriel is vested in a cope. The portrayal of the archangel in liturgical vestments was a common feature in late medieval northern European paintings of the Annunciation.
The doorway within which Mary stands is that of a gothic church, suggesting our Lady’s identity as the archetype of the Church, the Bride of Christ. The Holy Spirit is seen descending toward her, indicating that the moment of the Incarnation is about to take place. The depiction of this as transpiring at the threshold of a church evokes all the imagery associated with Psalm 24:
“Lift up your heads, O gates! / and be lifted up, O ancient doors! / that the King of glory may come in. / Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, / the Lord, mighty in battle!” (Psalm 24:7-8).
In the Church’s medieval liturgical ceremonies for the consecration of a new church and for the procession of Palm Sunday, the singing of this psalm marked the moment when the clergy would enter the main door of the church, representing particularly Christ’s entry into the Heavenly Jerusalem at His Ascension, but also His entry into the earthly Jerusalem at the outset of Holy Week, His entry into Sheol following His death to set free the souls of the just held there from the beginning of time until His coming, and, preceding all these entries, His entrance into the world at His Incarnation.
It is this latter association that is evoked by the placement of our Lady at the threshold of a church in the Petrus Christus Annunciation, for the Son of God is about to enter the temple of Mary’s virginal womb.
On the left side of the painting, where Gabriel stands, we see behind him a flowering meadow, suggesting the nuptial imagery of the Song of Solomon:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, / and come away; / for lo, the winter is past, / the rain is over and gone. / The flowers appear on the earth, / the time of singing has come, / and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (Song 2:10-12).
Indeed, one could well say that at the Annunciation “the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land,” considering that the Holy Spirit who wrought the Incarnation in the womb of our Lady appears in the Scriptures under the visible form of a dove.
By way of contrast, in the Flemish artist Gerard David’s 1506 depiction of the Annunciation, also in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, set on two separate panels for an altarpiece, with St. Gabriel in the left panel and the Blessed Virgin in the right, the more solemn dimension of this event is pervasive to the point of suggesting that David is directing the viewer’s mind to the Passion of Christ that will ultimately proceed from the Incarnation.
The face of our Lady is grave, seemingly tinged with sadness, as if even now, in the angel’s message, she is experiencing the first intimations of where this journey of God Incarnate, about to begin in her virginal womb, will eventually lead, and how she herself will share in that destiny on Golgotha. The very dark blue of her dress and cloak, almost black, and of the background behind her, including her bed, suggests this as well.
The face of Gabriel is likewise very serious, his hand raised as if he were delivering an admonition. The fringe of his cloak bears the words in Latin from his message, “…the power of the Most High will overshadow you….” (Luke 1:35). The suddenness of the Annunciation can also be seen in David’s depiction, with the book our Lady had been reading lying totally open, its pages fanned out, as happens when the hand is suddenly removed from an open book. On the floor before her lies a red pouch, its bright blood-red hue appearing to be yet another allusion to the Passion.
In both the Petrus Christus and the Gerard David paintings of the Annunciation, and in numerous other depictions as well, our Lady is portrayed as having been in the act of reading a book when the archangel came to her, with a vase of lilies near her. The meaning of the vase of lilies seems obvious, as a perennial symbol of Mary’s purity, but the lilies also symbolize the Incarnation as prophesied by Isaiah, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, / and a flower shall rise up out of his root” (Isaiah 11:1 — Douay-Reims translation), with the shoot (“rod”) representing Mary’s virginal motherhood and the flower representing the Son of God becoming man in her womb.
As for Mary’s reading, there was an ancient tradition that the Blessed Virgin was well read in the Psalter, and gifted with an exceptional wisdom and intelligence surpassing even that of the great doctors of the Church.
In the manner whereby our Lady received her calling to become the Mother of God, we can see in its most exalted form the way in which God calls each and every one of us to our respective vocations in life. It can and often does come as quickly and suddenly as it came to Mary. It is inspiring to hear and read the individual stories of how priests and nuns first heard the call of God in their lives, with vivid and emotional memories of where and how it happened.
We see this too in the Gospel accounts of how the apostles were called by our Lord, and find many beautiful descriptions of the call of God in the lives of the saints.

The End Of Time

All of these individual callings are woven together in the vast plan of God for the salvation of the world. There is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) a remarkable reflection upon how at the end of time God will reveal to the whole human race on the Day of Judgment this plan of His in its entirety, when the Father through His Son will “pronounce the final word on all history”:
“The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life. . . . We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything toward its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994, and Washington, D.C., United States Catholic Conference, 1994, nn. 1039-1040, pp. 271-272 ©Libreria Editrice Vaticana).
May all of us in our own lives be as receptive as our Lady was to the call of God, whenever, wherever, and however it comes.

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