A Liturgical Puzzle

Yesterday, while having chemotherapy, I said my Office using the iPad version of Universalis. Usually, we say our own monastic Office rather than the Roman, so I was very struck by the responsory for the second reading at Vigils/the Office of Readings (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses). Here is the text, first in English as given by Universalis, then in Latin as given by the 1977 editio typica of the Liturgia Horarium iuxta Ritum Romanum. The words that interest me are highlighted in bold.

The angel Gabriel was sent to announce the word to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, and she began to fear the light. ‘Mary, do not be afraid you have won the Lord’s favour:* You are to conceive and bear a son: he shall be called Son of the Most High.’
‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David: he will rule over the house of Jacob for ever. You are to conceive and bear a son: he shall be called Son of the Most High.’

Missus est Gabriel angelus ad Mariam Virginem desponsatam Ioseph, nuntians ei verbum; et expavescit Virgo de lumine. Ne timeas, Maria, invenisti gratiam apud Dominum. Ecce concipies et paries, et vocabitur Altissimi Filius.
Dabit ei Dominus Deus sedem David, patris eius, et regnabit in domo Iacob in aeternum.

The scriptural references are to Luke 1, verses 26, 27, 30, 31 and 32. It is well known that antiphons and responsories often paraphrase the words of scripture or rely on older texts than those we normally use. My first thought, therefore, was that this ‘fearing the light’ might come from an Old Latin (i/e pre-Vulgate) version of Luke, but preliminary searches online have yielded nothing. Then it was suggested that the line might just be an addition based on the usual Old Testament reaction to the presence of an angel, fear. That is entirely plausible, for the responsory goes on to tell Mary not to fear. If that is the correct explanation, it is what we might call a psychological addition to the text. I know that some learned reader will p0int me in the direction of the true explanation and source of the words, but let’s stay with them a while and see what they offer us.

Angels are not chubby little cherubs. They are messengers of God, robed in fire and flame, truly terrifying to those of impure sight and mind. Mary’s reaction to the angel is not merely alarm, its is dread (expavescere is a strong form of pavescere, which would be the more usual form to be translated as ‘begin to fear‘). We know that there was nothing impure about her, and Luke’s narrative of the Annunciation is constructed in such a way that we are impressed by Mary’s calmness and humble acceptance of her strange and wonderful destiny. Do these words, so quickly said and equally quickly forgotten, remind us of something we all need to ponder this Advent season? From time to time, God has a way of shining light on the secret places of our hearts. Unless we are unusually receptive, our first reaction tends to be to shy away or plead some excuse or mitigating circumstance. Deep down we know it is all pretence: we must choose either to stand in the light or hide from it. Only daring to stand in the light of God’s truth will prepare us for the gifts he wants to give us. All of us can learn from that young Jewish girl he chose to be his Mother — and ours.

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13 thoughts on “A Liturgical Puzzle”

  1. I can’t offer any explanation for the use of words, but I can honestly say, that if an Angel of God appeared to me in flames of light and waving a sword, I might twitch in fear and dread.

    It would of course depend on the context – if it was my sometimes overactive imagination, than I might just (only just) be able to cope, but the physical presence might tempt me to reach for a fire extinguisher 🙁

    But the word Picture drawn by Luke of the Annuciation has caused numerous artists over the centuries to depict it graphically, while it might have been a lot simpler than that, we only have Luke’s words for it, described verbatim from Mary’s memory of events, those that she stored up and pondered on throughout Jesus’ life and ministry.

    Last week on a quiet morning, the person running it, pointed out that Mary was the only witness for the whole process of Jesus’s birth, life and ministry and death – she shared it all, and we need to pay attention to her memories.

    • You may very well be right, but as some of the Old Latin versions do depart from what we know as the Greek text (to my unscholarly understanding, at any rate), I continue to wonder. At least, it has got us all thinking!

  2. I am not surprised that Mary was in dread especially in view of what the angel told her: that she was going to bear a child not fathered by her betrothed thereby exposing her to the tattling tongues and disapproval of the neighbours; and if Joseph divorced her there would be even more of a scandal. Never mind the future – the flight into Egypt as refugees, the son whose relations regarded his preaching as a family embarrassment, and seeing her beloved son die a felon’s death in a public execution with no foreknowledge of the Resurrection. Could I have shown such courage and faith? I doubt it.

  3. The whole subject of angels is a puzzle. A wonderful one but a puzzle nonetheless. Thanks for giving me something new and very topical to reflect on. Having just watched a rehearsal for an infant nativity play with a handful very small angels it is good to remember just how serious the business of angels is.

    Hope the chemotherapy is not too gruelling.

  4. It occurs to me that we each have a “strange and wonderful destiny.” Can we the see the places God shines this light of destiny within us, the light that calls forth our parallel “yes” to God in Mary?

  5. I always wanted to be Mary in the school nativity, but being blonde, always had to be an angel. There was also the memorable year (I must have been 3) when I was the Star of Bethlehem, everyone followed me around, until the final scene in the stable, where I had to stand behind Mary and Joseph, with my cardboard star on a stick. My legs got rather tired, so I tried to slide onto Mary’s chair with her… Right up until she slid off the other side! Clearly I wasn’t cut out to be Mary, or a star.

    It is funny how we dress children up to act out the roles, which I’d feel pretty unfit to play now.

  6. My latest spiritual project… to “look & listen” very carefully to Mary in the mysteries of the rosary, which I have since very young, but this time with earnest desire to learn and imitate, if only I could. Foremost in my mind is the fact that Her Immaculate Conception qualifies any observation or analysis of the mystery that is Mary, not as incomprehensible but inapprehensible. Perhaps at this point contemplation is my only recourse. Am I wrong in thinking this way?

    • Not necessarily, although I think it is possible to become too complicated. For example, we all try to follow Christ our Lord, to imitate him, if you like, and we do not allow ourselves to say it is impossible because he is God as well as man. I must think about this.

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