Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Annunciation. This must be one of the most frequently painted scenes in the history of art. One of my favourite versions is by the 16th century painter Pontormo which shows Mary walking up a staircase, turning around with one foot between steps as she is surprised by the angel’s presence behind her. It captures the unsuspecting innocence of her youth encountering a world larger than she had ever known or suspected. From this moment she is awakened from the dream of childhood and begins to be a woman who will love and suffer intensely. She is told she will be known by God. God waits and she consents.

The Gospels and, much more, later tradition emphasise the virginity of Mary. However we may understand the meaning of this doctrine, it evokes the state of pure openness and the capacity to be surprised even by that which, for a long time, we have strongly desired. In the ancient world, virginity was regarded as a high, if fragile, spiritual condition. In modern culture it is treated as amusing and transient. But these are social attitudes. A deeper mystical insight is found in the monastic idea of recovering virginity (wherever the individual may start from) as a pregnant harmony of body and spirit full of potency and joyful hope. This is the readiness in which the awakening, the eternal birth, of the Word of God can happen in us and the Word becomes our own flesh. I think this is more what the Gospels are intending to convey but it requires a more contemplative kind of reading. Don’t you feel more virginal, in this sense, after meditation?

This is an archetypal, unforgettable scene which starts the life of Jesus ticking. Mary’s virginal state permits the dialogue with the angel to happen unself-consciously and without our feeling it to be false. In some way, the believer feels, it really happened. Yet it is forever strange. What is being discussed between Mary and Gabriel is an event in time that impregnates time with eternity. The same event throws the duality of God and creature up in the air. It flies up beyond sight and when it comes down to earth, in her womb, these two are inseparable and one.

The youth-filled pure heart of Mary and her conception of a new life, join together in creating a new expression in time of the eternal nonduality of God. Humanity can see its own source and its way back in the ‘heart-breaking beauty of its young’. From Nazareth and Bethlehem on, this human beauty is now impossible to disentangle from the God who is always younger than we are. Even in the worst and ugliest of humanity’s thoughts or deeds, this beauty will be always there to save us from ourselves.

Laurence Freeman OSB

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