God’s Humility: the Annunciation

The Annunciation, about 1240, Tempera colours, gold leaf, and iron gall ink on parchment
Leaf: 17.8 × 13.5 cm (7 × 5 5/16 in.), Ms. 4, leaf 1 (84.ML.84.1.recto)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 4, leaf 1

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
The Annunciation, about 1240, Tempera colours, gold leaf, and iron gall ink on parchment
Leaf: 17.8 × 13.5 cm (7 × 5 5/16 in.), Ms. 4, leaf 1 (84.ML.84.1.recto)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 4, leaf 1

I sometimes think we should re-name today’s lovely solemnity of the Annunciation the Feast of God’s Humility. For it was when the angel Gabriel came to ask Mary’s consent to be the Mother of God that what one might call the expected order of things was upset for ever. The Creator asked the consent of his creature, without which he would not proceed. In St Bernard’s vivid homily for this day he pictures the whole of creation hanging on Mary’s word. Will she speak the word that gives the Word who sets us free? Thankfully, she does; and from that moment, Christ is among us, never to leave us again.

The earliest depictions of the Annunciation in Western art are rather like the one above. They show the angel standing before Mary, and Mary responding with a suitably severe expression that reflects the magnitude of what is being asked of her. Over time, the posture of both changes. Gabriel kneels; Mary is surprised reading or engaged in some household task. The commonplace, the ordinary, becomes the locus of God’s revelation as it is for most of us today. But that revelation changes us, as it changed Mary. Every night at Vespers, the Evening Prayer of the Church, we sing the Magnificat. We tell of the wonderful works God has done for the poor and lowly, his fidelity and our own gladness of heart. When Mary said her fiat, the Church existed nowhere but in her womb. Now, thanks to her, the Church is everywhere, but God still asks the consent of his creatures. He asks us to co-operate with him. God is still humble. Are we?

For those who are interested, there are several other posts on the Annunciation in this blog. Please use the search box in the sidebar.

Audio version:


The Annunciation 2014

The Annunciation is one of my favourite feasts, so here are two small things inspired by today’s celebration. The first is one of the earliest ebooks I ever did. The introductory essay may help to explain why Catholics consider the Blessed Virgin Mary an important figure in salvation history. The second is simply a talk I gave to the community one day. Please be aware that if you don’t have Flash enabled on your computer, you may encounter one or two difficulties:

and for the podcast, follow this link (opens in new window):


Important Copyright Notice

You may download one copy of the podcast for your own use, but you may not copy it nor redistribute it in any way whatsoever. It is copyright © Trustees of Holy Trinity Monastery. You may not download, copy or reproduce the ebook in any way whatsoever. It is copyright © Trustees of the Conventus of Our Lady of Consolation. Used by permission.

Personal Health Update

I’m being admitted to the Nuffield Hospital, Oxford, on Wednesday, 26 March for surgery the following day. (I have a soft-tissue cancer known generally as sarcoma.) I shall not be blogging/replying to emails for a while, but I do ask your prayers. Thank you.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Annunciation 2012

When I wrote about this feast last year (see here), I mentioned that it reminds us youth can do great things for God. More than that, I think this lovely feast tells us that our dreams and ambitions are all too little for God. He called Mary to be theotokos, God-bearer, in the fullest sense. Just think for a moment what that must have meant to her, a young Jewish girl with the ordinary expectations of her place and time. What an upset of all her plans and expectations!

God calls each one of us to be something special. Often we are so conscious of our ordinariness, and rightly so (heaven spare us the person who thinks (s)he’s special!), that we overlook or undervalue the unique grace he has given us. For those of us who live in monasteries, our only talent may be that of living the monastic life, but it is for us the essential talent, the one that endows us with grace to respond to our vocation, to be what God desires us to be. As we give thanks for Mary’s acceptance of what God asked of her, let us pray for ourselves, that we may be equally generous and fearless in accepting what is asked of us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

O Clavis David: liberation theology

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David, and Sceptre of the house of Israel, who open and no one shuts, who shuts, and no one opens, come and free from prison him who sits in darkness and the shadow of death.

I suggest we read Isaiah 22.22 and Isaiah 9.6. It would be useful also to consider the promise, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .’ as we listen to the antiphon:


I had hoped to write something fresh and new for today, but my mind is taken up with the chapter talk I’ll be giving this afternoon, the Missus Est. The story of the Annunciation reveals layer upon layer of meaning and every year I find myself marvelling at some new facet, which is not really ‘new’ at all but something I had been blind to previously. I suspect we all feel like that. This is a day for doing theology on our knees.

So, I’d like to repeat something I’ve said before. Read it in the context of our current preoccupation with what is happening in North Korea and elsewhere. The key image is telling. Don’t we all feel powerless in the face of political and economic forces over which we have no control? Don’t we need some sort of key to understand them? If we feel entrapped, don’t we need some sort of key to set us free? O Clavis David is liberation theology for today.

Today’s O antiphon links beautifully with the gospel of the day, Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Both remind us of the freedom we have been given in Christ. Yet how many of us think of ourselves as being really free? We are bound by our history, our genetic make-up, the choices we have made through life, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These can be both limitation and opportunity, but being human, we tend to concentrate on the limitations rather than the possibilities. The sad fact is, we are often quite happy in our bondage: if we are not free, we are not responsible. We can be moral Peter Pans all our lives.

Or can we? It may not be so much a case of being Peter Pan as a prisoner. The key image in the antiphon is a powerful one. To be locked into a room, even accidentally, can be an unnerving experience. To know that one’s release is entirely dependent on another challenges all one’s belief in one’s ability to impose one’s own will. We are reduced to waiting and hoping that the key-holder will let us out.

Two thousand years ago a young Jewish girl held the fate of all of us in her hands. Would she consent to be the Mother of God, to accept the Key of David who alone could set us free? That she did is the cause of all our joy this coming Christmas. Our liberation is close at hand.