I was in Italy recently and on March 25th there was a feast day honoring Mary, the mother of Jesus. A tour guide told me that it was exactly nine months before the birth of Jesus, and thus celebrated the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her she was with child. Aha! The innocence of this perception touched me, since historians now know with reasonable certainty that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was not born in winter at all. Identifying December the 25th as the birth day of Jesus was a convenient way for the early Christian church to co-opt the existing winter festivals that pre-dated Christianity, and combine observance of the winter solstice with the many metaphors of light and promise that accompany the nativity story . So designating March 25th as Lady Day, as it is sometimes called, is also a construct – but what a lovely story!
And an incredible one, as was pointed out by our choral conductor the last time we worked on “Messiah”. He was reminding us of the mystery and wonder of these narratives, often taken for granted by those of us brought up in the tradition. That mystery and wonder can be seen in the many, many artistic representations of the Annunciation in western art. That there had to have been a real woman who gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth there can be no doubt, so what did she think, when a supernatural being – as the story goes – appeared before her and told her that she was pregnant, and by God? She, unmarried, virtuous, living a protected life in a small town? What would you have thought, and felt? Terror? Disbelief? Worry? Amazement? Delight? Sorrow? The many portrayals of Mary at this moment is a lesson in human observation.
Most of the time, Mary is seated, but occasionally she is seen standing and facing the angel or even turning away. Sometimes her mantle is wrapped around her, or her arms are crossed, as if to protect herself from this unseen, unexpected, perhaps unwelcome news. Sometimes her hand is resting on her chest, as if to say, “Me?”, or even, “Why me?” Sometimes her hands are folded in prayer and she seems demure and accepting of her fate. Sometimes Mary’s glance is down, and sometimes she is looking at the angel, directly. Sometimes she is gazing up to heaven or off into the middle distance, as if she can see the future. In the Merode altarpiece she is so absorbed in her prayer book that she does not look up. One of my favorites, that of Fra Angelico, shows Mary with a completely startled look on her face, her arms crossed across her womb, taken aback and seeming to understand the grim fate that awaits the unborn child.
Reams of things have been written about the symbolism in these paintings, the various objects that represent Mary’s purity, her piety, and so on. In a largely illiterate society these images were meant to instruct the viewer. And musicians and singers know that the words spoken by the Angel and Mary at that moment, according to the bible, “Ave Maria” – Hail Mary, full of grace, and “Magnificat” – My soul glorifies the Lord – have inspired some of the most beautiful music in the choral repertoire. It is a cornerstone moment in Christianity. But I always return to that young woman facing an extremely unusual situation and frightening news. I think of Malala Yousafzai, of Anne Frank and countless other very young women throughout history who have been faced with impossible situations. I marvel at their courage. Mary is among them, I think…..brave. Very brave.
©Poets Sinews, 2015. Reuse with permission.