“Be it unto me according to thy word.”
If there is a test for catholic orthodoxy, it invariably centers on Mary. Only through her do we understand the mystery of our redemption in Christ. She is the theotokos, the God-bearer, the mother of God. To begin to understand that is to begin to understand the wonder and the joy of our redemption.
Anglican divinity is not without its cloud of witnesses to the role and place of the Virgin Mary in our salvation and nowhere does that become more abundantly clear than in the Feast of the Annunciation.
We forget that this was the actual beginning of the year for over a thousand years. March 25th points us to December 25th. The ancients and the medievals were not so uninformed about the mundane and yet miraculous prosody of human reproduction as we might suspect. England, as reluctant as ever to be drawn into anything that smacks of continental superiority, held out until 1752 with respect to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar, adopted for the most part in most of Europe in 1582, which designated January 1st as the beginning of the civil calendar year.
The older sensibility reflects the idea of our lives as marked spiritually by the doctrinal moments in the life of Christ. That sensibility still underlies the ecclesiastical calendar. In this case, the Annunciation marks the beginning of the year by way of the commemoration of the entrance into creation and humanity of God himself. In short, Mary’s Annunciation is Christ’s conception, humanly speaking, in the womb of Mary. He who is “God of God” and “Light of Light” becomes incarnate in the womb of Mary. The event is the Annunciation.
There is no fuller statement of the Doctrine of the Incarnation that underlies and complements both the Doctrine of Redemption and the Doctrine of the Trinity than this feast. And by a remarkable and frequent aspect of Providence, this feast is more often celebrated in the intensities of Lent than in the exuberances of Easter. In a way, it provides a wonderful meditation upon the rich theme of human redemption. Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel is the defining response of the Church to the whole of our life in Christ.
Nowhere is that attitude more clearly concentrated for us than in Passiontide and in our preparations for the agony of Holy Week. As Luke suggests in his prelude to Christ’s passion, “they” and so we “hung upon his words.” That is what is indicated on this day. Mary’s response is about hanging upon the words of the one who will hang on the Cross for us and for our salvation. He can only do so, and such is the paradox of faith, through the humanity which he assumes from her in her willing acquiescence to the divine word. “Be it unto me according to thy word.”
On this day in Passiontide, we are bidden to contemplate the wondrous exchange between God and Man that results in Christ’s Incarnation by which the greater wonder of our salvation is transacted on the Cross for us and for the whole world.
The poet and preacher John Donne captures all of the paradoxes of relationship in his intense and difficult sonnet, “Annunciation,” part of a sequence of sonnets that comprise La Corona, at once, the crown of thorns and the crown of salvation. In the structure of this series of sonnets, the last line of each sonnet forms the opening line of the succeeding sonnet, thus creating a crown or circle. The last line brings us to the first line of the entire sequence.
The sequence is a celebration of the doctrinal moments in the life of Christ, a creedal sequence, we might say, about the doctrine of the Incarnation and its ramifications for our understanding of our humanity in relation to God. The second sonnet in the sequence is entitled “Annunciation” and its opening line is the last line of the preceding sonnet. “Salvation to all that will is nigh.”
Salvation to all that will is nigh ;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb ; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother ;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived ; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
Rich and provocative in the range of its allusions, the sonnet is an intense and theologically comprehensive meditation upon the doctrine of the Incarnation in relation to the redemption of our humanity. The word play on ‘all’ is instructive.
In the opening line, the all refers to us, or at least to the humanity that wills, meaning that it wants and desires salvation. In Donne’s understanding salvation is what we all seek in one way or another but his point is that salvation has to be something which we will. As he puts it elsewhere, “God will not save us without our wills but only through our wills.” In other words, and this is in accord with the high doctrine of the Annunciation and of the significance of Mary, it must be “according to thy word” in the one who has come near to us, the Word made flesh through Mary. Not just what we want but rather our wanting what God wants for us. All of that is concentrated for us on this day and in this season. Subsequently, in the sonnet, ‘All’ then refers to God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, “that all which always is all everywhere,” all the traditional and classical attributes of divinity.
It is too much to unpack all of the richness of this most theological of sonnets. It explores the full range of the complexity of interchange between God and Man transacted through the Virgin Mary. She is at once conceived in the “mind” of God and she, in turn, conceives in her womb the one who is the world’s salvation, the redeemer of our sinful humanity, who as God “cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,” and who “cannot die, yet cannot choose but [to] die.” And Christ, who is from everlasting, the eternal Son and Word, cannot take sin from her, implying the high doctrine of the immaculate nature or purity of Mary with respect to the logic of redemption, a point of great emphasis for 17th century English divinity.
They celebrated the purity of Mary because of the purity of Christ. Only as pure can he freely bear the impurities of our sins which make us less than ourselves, less than fully human. Only as pure can he restore us to the truth of ourselves in God. Only as pure can he show us the Father and show us to the Father. It is the point made ever so strongly and clearly in the proper preface for Christmas and for the Annunciation in The Book of Common Prayer in which Christ, it is prayed, “was made very man of the substance of the Virgin Mary his mother; and that without spot of sin, to make us clean from all sin.” Any compromising of the terms of this discourse of doctrinal prayer would be a loss of orthodoxy. The teaching reflects the patristic instinct and insight as suggested, for instance, by Irenaeus. Christ is the eternal son of God, “that pure one, opening purely that pure womb which regenerates men unto God and which he himself made pure.”
The way of the Cross is the greater humility of God who “yields Himself to lie/ In prison, in thy womb” and in so doing is “thy Son and brother … Thy maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother.” Such are the paradoxes of relationship in the paradox of redemption.
The sonnet concludes with the great wonder of this day and feast. “Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb.” The immensity of God is enclosed in the redemptive womb of Mary through her active engagement with the will of God. She encapsulates the truth of our humanity, humanly considered in relation to God. It is all in her word, her “be it unto me according to thy word,” the word which anticipates Christ’s passion and death for our salvation. “Not my will but thy will be done,” he will say in the agony of his humanity which he has assumed from her whom we commemorate this day.
“Be it unto me according to thy word”
Fr David Curry
The Feast of the Annunciation
March 25th, 2010