The Feast of the Annunciation

Johann Christian Schröder - The AnnunciationThis day in the church calendar marks The Feast of the Annunciation – the church’s answer to those who refute the humanity of God. It might strike one as a little odd that this ‘feast’ and its attendant Gospel reading (Luke 1.26–38) should appear in the final week of Lent. But there is, it seems to me, a deep connection at work here.

I was reminded of this in two ways yesterday. The first was reading a couple of brief reflections by Joan Chittister:

Mary was not used … Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God … She was made an equal partner in the process. (In Search of Belief, 98).

The feast of the Annunciation [is] the moment when doing the will of God brought Mary into total solitude, outside the understanding of her society, beyond the support of her family. It is the practice of solitude that enables us to stand alone in life against the ruthless tide. Simone Weil wrote, ‘Absolute attention is prayer’. Have you known the solitude that brings absolute attention to the thought of God? Then you have known the Annunciation. (The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict, 32)

‘Absolute attention’. What a wonderful invitation to engage Lent!

It is possible, of course, as Chittister observes elsewhere, and as many artworks encourage, to allow the word ‘annunciation’ to conjure up less exhausting, less cataclysmic images. But ‘this, after all, was no routine summons. This was an earth-shattering, life-changing, revolutionary call. This was what happens when life is completely turned around, when the house burns down or the job disappears or the stock market crashes’. If most of the images of divine encounter that we carry are too passive, too gentle, too quiet, too lacking in interruption, too hyper-predestinarian, too naïve about the kinds of material which with God chooses to work, then the problem lies not with the word ‘annunciation’ but with us and our romanticized and sanitized – and let’s just name it, docetic or nestorian! – readings of the Gospel narrative.

And this leads me to the second gift that aided my seeing this week; namely, happening across Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Weary in Well-doing’ (1864), words that bear witness to a different manner of gentleness, work, and rest:

I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
And said them nay.

Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so.

I go, Lord, where thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with Thee?

I reflected more on these things as I put together a little video presentation of images depicting the Annunciation, set to J. S. Bach’s ‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’ (King of Heaven, welcome), BWV 182. The piece was first performed on The Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1714. I now share it with you.

Annunciation and call

Duane Michals - The Annunciation

One afternoon, in a small window of time between when my students departed at the end of another two-week block course and my turning of attention to report writing, I spent a few moments reflecting on the mysterious relationship between what we ecclesiastical types call ‘call’ and the ancient (its origins were in the 5th century) Feast of the Annunciation – that much-downplayed event in the church’s calendar set to mark the archangel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and become theotokos (God-bearer), and Mary’s fiat, her ready reception of this most inconceivable of happenings.

One thing that struck me was that this feast, which is observed on 25 March – a full term before the celebration of ‘the birth’ – coincides with Good Friday during those seasons when Holy Week happens in March. This not to be glossed over. For the real subject of the Feast is none other than he who was, at least according to one modern translation of the Bible, ‘slain from the creation of the world’ (Rev 13.8). The entirety of human history, in other words, has a distinct mark of the pietà about it, of the fragile God given into human hands. And there is something peculiarly cataclysmic too about 25 March: according to tradition, events as diverse as the creation of the earth, the creation of Adam, Lucifer’s fall, and the crossing of the Red Sea are all supposed to have happened on this date. And yet, none of these events are as significant to the church as the broadcast to a young girl that she is to bear in her womb the very one in whom, by whom and for whom all things exist. Her womb becomes the place where all life, all that will be, is born. Her womb is also the place where she will feel the pain of her son’s death at the hands of violent strangers, and the pain of lifelessness as he who once suckled on her warm breasts in now laid in a cold rock-hewn tomb belonging to some Sanhedrin member from Arimathea.

A further thing that struck me was the way in which this Feast trumpets Christian ministry’s most basic confession; namely, its impossibility – impossibility marked by the unrelenting command to witness to the sheer givenness of God’s unexpected and messy irruption among us and in us. That Christian ministry and theology, as Valdir Steuernagel has it, is ‘born in the guts, twisted by the shock of God’s visit’, and that ‘the cradle of theology is stupefaction, when we find ourselves absolutely lost and completely thankful for God’s visit’, is not the stuff of carefully manufactured and controlled environments. To offer one’s womb so that the life of another might be formed in us, to embrace waiting, to receive the burden of vocation along with others – others who, like cousin Elizabeth, help us to carry on – is to feel ‘pulled into God’s history’. And to be drowned in baptism (sometimes called ‘ordination’) is to discover oneself a character in the divine humour, the early gurglings of him who will have the last laugh. The Feast of the Annunciation is the church’s answer to those who refute that laughter, and the claim that vocations born of Yes’s like Mary’s are marked above all else by anything other than extreme ambiguity.

Most of my window, however, was spent reading and thinking with three poems on the annunciation – one by the Irish poet-priest John O’Donohue, one by the well-known English poet Elizabeth Jennings, and one by the great Welsh poet-priest R. S. Thomas – poems I wanted to share with readers here.

Cast from afar before the stones were born
And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,
The words have waited for the hunger in her
To become the silence where they could form.

The day’s last light frames her by the window,
A young woman with distance in her gaze,
She could never imagine the surprise
That is hovering over her life now.

The sentence awakens like a raven,
Fluttering and dark, opening her heart
To nest the voice that first whispered the earth
From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.

She offers to mother the shadow’s child;
Her untouched life becoming wild inside.

–  John O’Donohue, ‘The Annunciation’, in Conamara Blues (London: Bantom Books, 2001), 61.


Nothing will ease the pain to come
Though now she sits in ecstasy
And lets it have its way with her.
The angel’s shadow in the room
Is lightly lifted as if he
Had never terrified her there.

The furniture again returns
To its old simple state. She can
Take comfort from the things she knows
Though in her heart new loving burns
Something she never gave to man
Or god before, and this god grows

Most like a man. She wonders how
To pray at all, what thanks to give
And whom to give them to. “Alone
To all men’s eyes I now must go”
She thinks, “And by myself must live
With a strange child that is my own.”

So from her ecstasy she moves
And turns to human things at last
(Announcing angels set aside).
It is a human child she loves
Though a god stirs beneath her breast
And great salvations grip her side.

– Elizabeth Jennings, ‘The Annunciation’, in Collected Poems (Manchester/New York: Carcanet Press, 1986), 45–46.


She came like a saint
to her bride-bed, hands
clasped, mind clenched
on a promise. ‘Some

fell by the wayside,’
she whispered. ‘Come, birds,
winnow the seed lest
standing beside a chaste

cradle with a star
over it, I see flesh
as snow fallen and think
myself mother of God.’

– R. S. Thomas, ‘Annunciation’, in Collected Later Poems, 1988–2000 (Highgreen: Bloodaxe, 2004), 194.


[Image: Duane Michals, ‘The Annunciation, 6/25’. Gelatin Silver Print, 8 x 10 in. Source]