By Fr. Sean McDermott
Today marks one the most important feast days of the Church year, the Annunciation. Nine months before Christmas, today we meditate upon the Incarnation, God's plan to redeem humanity, and Mary's role in the history of redemption as the New Eve. We hope the following resources will help your contemplation!
First off, just take a moment to look carefully at Fra Angelico's amazing painting of this moment. Watch this video to learn more about the composition and interesting details of the painting.
Second, click here to download a lovely essay by E. L.Mascall: Theotokos, The Place of Mary in the Work of Salvation. This essay helps explain the high place of honor which Mary holds in the Anglican tradition by showing her role in the Body of Christ.
Third, we cannot have a post on the Annunciation without some good settings of the Magnificat! Here are two very different modern settings. The first is a beautiful piece by Herbert Howells, written in 1946. You can read more over at Cantica Sacra. [Editors note: Ken Myers has posted a separate post about the service music for the Annunciation here. In addition, you can listen to wonderful interview about Biber's Mystery Sonata about the Annunciation here.]
The second setting is by Arvo Part, composed in 1988. Again, please go over to Cantica Sacra to read Ken Myers' helpful descriptions of this piece.
Finally, there are many wonderful poems about the Annunciation, but here are a few given to me by Chris James.
The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from Keble’s The Christian Year
St. Luke i. 28.
Oh! Thou who deign’st to sympathise With all our frail and fleshly ties, Maker yet Brother dear, Forgive the too presumptuous thought, If, calming wayward grief, I sought To gaze on Thee too near.
Yet sure ’twas not presumption, Lord, ’Twas Thine own comfortable word That made the lesson known: Of all the dearest bonds we prove, Thou countest sons and mothers’ love Most sacred, most Thine own.
When wandering here a little span, Thou took’st on Thee to rescue man, Thou had’st no earthly sire: That wedded love we prize so dear, As if our heaven and home were here, It lit in Thee no fire.
On no sweet sister’s faithful breast Wouldst Thou Thine aching forehead rest, On no kind brother lean: But who, O perfect filial heart, E’er did like Thee a true son’s part, Endearing, firm, serene?
Thou wept’st, meek maiden, mother mild, Thou wept’st upon thy sinless Child, Thy very heart was riven: And yet, what mourning matron here Would deem thy sorrows bought too dear By all on this side Heaven?
A Son that never did amiss, That never shamed His Mother’s kiss, Nor crossed her fondest prayer: E’en from the tree He deigned to bow, For her His agonised brow, Her, His sole earthly care.
Ave Maria! blessèd Maid! Lily of Eden’s fragrant shade, Who can express the love That nurtured thee so pure and sweet, Making thy heart a shelter meet For Jesus’ holy dove?
Ave Maria! Mother blest, To whom, caressing and caressed, Clings the eternal Child; Favoured beyond Archangels’ dream, When first on Thee with tenderest gleam Thy new-born Saviour smiled:—
Ave Maria! thou whose name All but adoring love may claim, Yet may we reach thy shrine; For He, thy Son and Saviour, vows To crown all lowly lofty brows With love and joy like thine.
Blessed is the womb that bare Him—blessed The bosom where His lips were pressed, But rather blessed are they Who hear His word and keep it well, The living homes where Christ shall dwell, And never pass away.
Annunciation, by Malcolm Guite
We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy,
A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.
But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.
Gabriel to a girl unwed, included in Austin Farrer’s Said or Sung*
Gabriel to a girl unwed
Came in a chamber sitting.
He soothed away her virgin dread
And gave a royal greeting:
‘Greeting, the Queen of virgins all!
The sceptered heir of Heaven’s hall
Conceived in thee and born of thee a maiden
Man’s forfeit shall recall;
Thou shalt reopen Eden
And remedy the Fall.’
‘How should I conceive a child
Till marriage-rites have crowned me?
How with honour be beguiled
From vows that straitly bound me?’
‘The Spirit of the Lord will show’r
Alone the wonder-working dow’r;
Banish annoy, be full of joy, and never
Fear for thy virgin flow’r;
It shall be white as ever
By God’s almighty pow’r.’
She heard the angel willingly;
Her answer soon was given.
‘My only prayer is, to be
The handmaiden of heaven.
To thee, divine ambassador,
God’s high and secret councilor,
I yield consent, my eyes intent on seeing
A hope long hearkened for,
My heart and will agreeing
With God their governor.’
Mary, Mother of the Lord,
Peacemaker who repairest
Man’s and angel’s old accord
Through the dear Christ thou barest;
Pray yet for us, entreat thy Son
Until the Love Divine is won
To show us grace, and so efface transgression
That we may freely run
To heavenly fruition,
Our day of exile done.
*Farrer mentions in the foreword that this poem is among some in the book, which are “literal versions of well-known Latin originals”, and not an original poem.
Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief at Earth & Altar.