Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Silence, Annunciation, Incarnation

Today is the feast of the Annunciation in the traditional calendar, commemorating the event where the Angel "declared unto Mary" and she "conceived by the Holy Spirit".

As recited in Latin in the Angelus:

V. Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae.
R. Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto.

It was nine months before the Nativity, at the moment of Mary's response to the Angel's Annunciation -- "Be it done to me according to thy word" -- that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us:

V. Ecce ancilla Domini.
R. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.

V. Et Verbum caro factum est.
R. Et habitavit in nobis.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), although better known for other works, wrote a cycle of poems on the life of the Virgin Mary, one of which was about the Annunciation. The poem suggests an intense silence at the first moment of the encounter between the Archangel and Mary, before Gabriel greeted Mary and revealed his purpose.

While Rilke's theology is often unorthodox, his description of this silence before the Annunciation is compelling. Both the Archangel and Mary are entirely present to one another and, at that moment, in a state of holy fear. Perhaps Mary is in awe because she instantly recognizes Gabriel as a messenger of God, and perhaps Gabriel is in awe because he instantly recognizes Mary's profound purity.

The last lines of the poem, in rough translation, are as follows:

"She and he,
seeing and seen,
nowhere other than where they were.
Such sight frightens, and both were scared . . .
Then the angel sang his song."

When composing the poem, Rilke might well have meditated on the above image of The Annunciation (1333) by Simone Martini (ca. 1284 to ca. 1344). There, Gabriel and Mary gaze upon one another, their eyes meeting.

Although many paintings of the Annunciation show the Archangel giving Our Lady a lily, in Martini's portrayal, the lilies -- symbol of Mary's purity -- are in a vase. Gabriel instead presents Mary with an olive branch, symbol of peace. Gabriel also wears a crown of olive, which is the crown of the Holy Ghost.

The Ave Maria Prayer

Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum;
benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et en hora mortis nostrae.

(Hail, Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

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