Annunciation 2016 and a Tale of Two Marys

The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch
The Annunciation by D. Werburg Welch

This morning at Mass, while dreamily thinking of Mary’s unequalled faith and the wonderful things that youth can achieve, I was brought up short by a phrase in the Preface. In Latin the words are beautifully turned, stating that the Vigin heard with faith that Christ inter homines et propter homines nasciturum. The English translation, however, wobbles between bathos and theological inadequacy:
‘Christ was to be born among men and for men’s sake.’

Now, I know that the learned among you will tell me that in this context ‘men’ means women and children, as well as adult members of the male sex; the more learned will point out that the Latin uses the word homo rather than vir and lose themselves in arguments about how the word should be rendered in English, which lacks anything like the German mensch; while the most learned of all will quote reassuring texts from early Christian writers, such as Athanasius’ ‘what Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed’ (which is, in this context, perhaps not quite as reassuring as one might hope). The trouble is, I am not really convinced that in this particular instance we have the best possible translation to bring out the wonder of what God has wrought for us.

For an English reader that ‘born among men’ may conjure up unfortunate visions of Dr Slop, the male midwife, or perhaps St Joseph having to take on the role of midwife to Mary because Bethlehem suddenly had no women in it. Until modern times birth was an occasion almost entirely reserved for women, which is probably why the phrase startled me. It is meant to be poetic, but the English translation isn’t. Then there is that ‘for men’s sake’. I suppose I’ve had too many run-ins with male clergy not to feel that that is exactly what some (by no means all!) secretly believe. Of course the phrase is meant to convey that Christ was born on earth for our sakes, but as it stands, it doesn’t quite say that. Which is why, this morning, I wish to offer two thoughts, neither original, but which I think are worth mulling over prayerfully.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, was the first person on earth to believe the mystery of the Incarnation; the first to welcome Christ in his humanity; the first to be completely filled with the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. For nine months, wherever she walked, Christ went, too; and only with her. She was, so to say, the Church in its infancy, for only with the death and resurrection of Christ could the Church truly come into being. Mary Magdalene was the first to believe the Resurrection; the first to see the Risen Christ; the first to be entrusted with the proclamation, ‘He is risen’. She was the first member of the Church born from the side of Christ on Calvary.

Two Marys, two very different roles, but both telling us something important about what it means to believe in Christ, true God and true man, our Saviour and Redeemer. As the collect for today daringly says, we pray that we may merit to become sharers even in his divine nature, ipsius etiam divinae naturae mereamur esse consortes. To which one can but say a reverent and grateful, ‘Amen’.

Note on the illustration: a painting by D. Werburg Welch, copyright the Trustees of the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation. All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited. Used by permission. If you look at the post here, you will see the illustration used in one of my early ebooks, plus a link to a podcast on the theme.

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6 thoughts on “Annunciation 2016 and a Tale of Two Marys”

  1. I wonder if the phraseology might be the result of being written in an age when the attitude to women was different from what we strive to attain today (but seldom manage, fully).

  2. Thank you for the two Marys who carry and announce the Saviour an his Church!

    It’s wonderful to see D. Werburg’s mystical vision again!

  3. “born among people for the sake of all people” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!

    I found myself at an assessment centre for a new job recently, where we were given a group work exercise which was essentially a logic problem. We had to share the clues around our group, and calculate how much time it would take for a mixed group of men and women to complete a particular task, based on the clues. Some of the clues were irrelevant to the calculation.

    As we went through the problem, one of the two men I was working on the task with asked if we though the number of men and women in the team would be significant.

    “Nah!” I joked, “HR wouldn’t let them infer that men and women do different amounts of work!” We laughed, as did the 3 men assessing us, and carried on.

    As is normal, half way through this task, we were given a new set of clues that completely changed everything we needed to do. The idea is to put pressure on the group, and see how you respond. One of the new clues was ‘Women in the group do 20% more work than men’.

    Now this cracked all of us up, rather removing any tension we might have felt about having to start again.

    The odd thing is, I don’t think its any better when stereotypes about gender are reversed. All of us have a part to play in teams, life and the church. Our personalities and unique skills have much more to do with what we contribute than our gender. Perhaps because I’ve not learnt the Catholic perspective, I tend not to perceive much difference in the roles Mary and Joseph played in the story – simplifying, both had a visit from and angel which led to them demonstrating their acceptance and faith.

    • Thank you. I agree that ‘born among people for the sake of people’ is no better than the 2012 translation, which is why I gave the Latin text. It’s exactly the kind of problem I used to think hard about when I translated patristic and liturgical texts myself, but my main purpose today was not to tinker with the translation, nor to talk about gender-stereotypoing. I was simply thinking aloud, in a small way, about theology and ecclesiology. If the language of prayer does not fully express the belief of the Church, the belief of the Church is subtly altered and the nature of the Church herself undergoes a transformation. That, to me, is important; and in proposing reflection on the two Marys, I hoped to suggest that we sometimes overlook or undervalue something that is rather obvious once we have noticed it.

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