by Vanessa R. Corcoran in ‘America’, The Jesuit Review,’ 30 November 2018
One of the most memorable passages from the Gospel of Luke is Mary’s fiat: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38). Her assent to God’s will represented her unflagging devotion and became a model for Christians. At Christmastime and again when Christians observe the feast of the Annunciation on March 25, we celebrate Mary’s fiat but also ruminate on Mary’s hesitation at the annunciation, when she “was troubled at his saying and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.” It is arguably one of the most famous pauses in history.
Surprisingly, the Virgin Mary, the most famous woman in Christianity, spoke on only four occasions in the entire New Testament (Lk 1:26-38, 1:46-56, 2:41-52 and Jn 2:1-11). Those brief remarks, amounting to under 200 words, inspired innumerable prayers, hymns, sermons and other devotional practices, perhaps none more than her words at the Annunciation.
The Origins of the Feast Day
Within the Gospel of Luke, written around 80-100 C.E., we meet Mary as a young virgin betrothed to Joseph. The Annunciation story, only 12 verses long, not only defined Mary as obedient to the will of God but became a scene reimagined both in visual illuminations and written devotional materials. Luke was often referred to as “the painter of the Virgin” because he supplied the most details about Mary and became the model upon which others built to characterize the Mother of God.
When the “Anno Domini” calendar was first introduced in 525 C.E., March 25, which would later become the date of the feast of the Annunciation, was made the first day of the year. Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, argued that this event commenced the age of grace. The first recorded instance of its celebration was at the ecclesiastical Council of Toledo in 656. Today, the feast of the Annunciation is observed throughout Christianity, including within Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Catholicism and Lutheranism.
It is nearly impossible to consider Catholic devotion to Mary without thinking of the Annunciation, as the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” became the beginning of the Hail Mary prayer. The angel’s greeting to Mary also became incorporated into the Angelus, a prayer recited three times a day in monasteries, convents and churches. The Annunciation would be second only to the Passion in terms of representation in pre-modern Western art.
The Medieval Fascination With Mary’s Response
Amid an extensive corpus of late medieval Marian theological commentaries, there emerged a rich tradition of devotional sources that produced glosses on the Annunciation passage. The French abbot and Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), well-known for his prolific writings on Mary, wrote the following commentary on Mary’s initial taciturnity:
Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word. Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary.
Bernard urges Mary to abandon her usual prudence and instead to respond quickly. He encourages her to speak in order to demonstrate her trust in God. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Marian writings were so influential that for centuries he was referred to as the “eminent preacher of the Virgin Mother’s glory,” the “Marian Doctor,” as well as the “Troubadour of Mary.”
Sermons were not the only medium theologians used to reflect upon Mary’s response to Gabriel. Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230-98), a Dominican archbishop, wrote the Golden Legend, one of the most influential hagiographical works of the Middle Ages. The Golden Legend represents the effects of centuries of intertwining canonical, apocryphal and medieval legends about the lives of the saints, including Mary. As he reflects on the Annunciation, Jacobus comments on the significance of Mary’s apprehension:
Here we see that the Virgin was worthy of praise in her hearing the words and her reception of them, and in her pausing to think about them. She was praiseworthy for her modesty when she heard the words and remained silent, for her hesitancy at receiving the words, and for her prudence in her thoughtfulness, because she thought about the sense of the greeting.
Jacobus underscores Mary’s modesty, praising her initial hesitation as a sign of her sanctity. Even though medieval texts praise Mary for pausing to reflect upon Gabriel’s pronouncement, complete silence without an eventual answer would have been unacceptable.
Some late medieval devotional materials emphasized Mary’s literacy as evidence of her sacred knowledge. Images of the Annunciation featured Mary reading Scripture when the angel Gabriel appeared to her: This symbolized the incarnation of Christ as the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”). Medieval devotional sources emphasized Mary’s special relationship with the Word and praised her sophisticated understanding of the impact of Christ’s ministry and resurrection. Many artists depicted the Annunciation scene within a contemporary medieval setting, as if to suggest that Mary’s words of obedience transcended time and space.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, the 12th-century bishop Bruno of Segni (d. 1123) praised Mary’s contemplative reflections throughout Christ’s life:
O thou truly wise mother, alone worthy of such a son! All these words she pondered in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19, 51), keeping them for us and committing them to memory, so that afterwards, she herself having taught, narrated and accounted them, they might be spoken and preached throughout the world. For the apostles heard these things from her.
Bruno of Segni connects Mary’s reflection (“all these words she pondered in her heart”) as significant to her role as magistra apostolorum (“teacher of the apostles”), a popular Marian title in the Middle Ages.
The Annunciation was not just the subject of many medieval sermons and extensive illuminations, but was depicted in other artistic mediums as well. Liturgical dramas, broken into distinct pageants that illuminated Christianity’s most memorable accounts, reshaped the Annunciation story to suit a medieval audience. These mystery plays were performed for lay audiences in urban settings throughout Europe. Two of the most famous Marian pilgrimage shrines of the later Middle Ages, Our Lady of Walsingham in England and the Holy House of Loreto in Italy, were also deeply connected to the Annunciation story.
The legend of the Walsingham shrine was that in 1061 the Virgin Mary appeared to a widow named Richeldis and entreated her to rebuild her Nazareth house in England. Similarly, the origin story of the Holy House of Loreto was that angels had carried Mary’s house from Nazareth to Italy. For centuries, streams of pilgrims have visited both shrines connected to the moment when Mary obediently accepted God’s will.
Mary’s ‘Yes’ in Modernity
Mary’s initial silence and eventual assent to God’s will has remained a compelling moment within theological commentaries on the Annunciation. In his 2006 homily on the Annunciation, Pope Benedict XVI remarked:
The icon of the Annunciation, more than any other, helps us to see clearly how everything in the Church goes back to that mystery of Mary’s acceptance of the divine Word, by which, through the action of the Holy Spirit, the Covenant between God and humanity was perfectly sealed. Everything in the Church, every institution and ministry, including that of Peter and his Successors, is “included” under the Virgin’s mantle, within the grace-filled horizon of her “yes” to God’s will.
Like so many other theologians, Pope Benedict viewed Mary’s acceptance of God’s will as the springboard for the church’s entire ministry. While speaking on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in 2017, Pope Francis noted, “We admire our Mother for her response to God’s call and mission.” He has also referred to the Annunciation as a “feast of ‘yes’” and said that Mary’s response is the lynchpin to this crucial moment in salvation history.
We live in a sound-bite world, replete with snappy headlines and quickly drafted tweets that encapsulate the briefest of human responses. Yet one of the most reimagined moments in the Bible captures silence: Mary’s pregnant pause, full of anticipation and wonderment. When we listen to the Annunciation story, it is evident that inner contemplation has always been an integral aspect of Christian devotion. We would all do well to imitate Mary with such thoughtfulness in our own challenging moments.