The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. We are exactly nine months from Jesus’ birth, December 25. So today the angel Gabriel approached the Virgin Mary with the happy news that she would conceive and bear a son.
I always like that this feast falls sometime during Lent. There are years (very rarely) when it even falls, as it did 4 years ago, on Good Friday. Talk about dissonant: the feast of Christ’s conception falling on the same day as his crucifixion. In the 17th century the famous poet and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, John Donne, wrote a poem about these two events falling on the same day, as they did in 1608. Donne was one of the “metaphysical poets,” poets who loved contradictions and irony. This was just the sort of convergence of events they would love, and did.
[My soul] sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen;
At once a son is promised her, and gone;
It’s rare that those two events overlap–as in once-in-a-century-rare. And so it will be another hundred years or so before it happens again. We’re nowhere close to that. But it is Lent. It’s always Lent when we celebrate the Annunciation. And this is one thing the church does so well: accommodates both grief and joy in the same season, the same day, the same breath.
In the story from Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel approaches the young Mary. She’s in her home in Nazareth. Forget the medieval pictures of her kneeling at a piece of church furniture, called a prayer desk. Usually she’s also holding an anachronistic small medieval devotional book, her head bowed, her arms crossed over her chest, sometimes a slight curtsy, more the posture and style of a medieval lady than the Levantine peasant girl that she was, probably scarcely fifteen years old when this happened.
Gabriel approaches Mary, and announces the conception of her child in lines we know by heart: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” It goes on, “Mary was greatly troubled at his words. But the angel said to her, Do not be afraid.”
Even though it’s a joyful occasion, one of the most joyful occasions a woman can have, Mary is troubled, and afraid. Just after Jesus’ birth comes one of the most poignant lines in the Gospels. It’s from Simeon, who tells Mary, when she takes her new baby to the Temple for the first time, that thanks to this child, a sword shall pierce her soul.
Joy, and grief, these two are inseparable. Anything that gives you deep joy like a child, true love, carries with it the possibility of loss and utter heartbreak. Joy “hurts just as much as it is worth,” said the writer Zadie Smith. No sooner do we gain something that we really want, than we know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that it won’t last forever and we’ll one day have to let it (or him, or her) go.
The Feast of the Annunciation falls now because it takes nine months for a baby to gestate in a mother’s womb. March 25–December 25. Nine months. But it’s timing during Lent is so meaningful; it can’t just be an accident. Seasons of sorrow, and seasons of rejoicing often overlap. We can experience both at the very same time, and more often than not, we do.
Maybe we are even right now, with everything going on in the world.
So today we give thanks for this brave young woman, Mary, brave and courageous and strong enough to carry sorrow and joy together, as God gives us the grace to do.