What lit bonfires in the imagination of the Fathers.
Thanks largely to the vicissitudes of a busy semester and a certain kind of blogging writer's block, this blog has been silent since Ash Wednesday. Though I did not plan it that way, the idea of a Lenten pause makes a certain amount of sense insofar as it encourages one to withdraw into self-examination and reflection (not that I have done much of that - I've been far too busy with academic papers and the like). Today's Feast of the Annunciation offers a joyful break from Lenten asceticism, so it seems appropriate that I break my unintended blogging fast to post something today. One thing I feel compelled to post is Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate (c. 1450/55), a painting with a special place in my heart and one I've posted about before.
I saw Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate for the first time a decade ago when I was a Jesuit novice, and what struck me then - and continues to strike me now - is the somewhat awkward placement of the book in Mary's left hand. The idea that the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she was reading a book is a commonplace in Western iconography of the Incarnation, but in this particular image Mary seems to have responded so readily to Gabriel's summons that she hasn't even taken the time to put down the book that she was reading. Crossing her arms in a gesture of submission, she retains her book in her left hand and even seems to be marking her page with her forefinger. Mary may be eager to return to whatever she was reading, but at the same time she recognizes that her life has been changed forever on account of Gabriel's message and her own fiat.
The second thing I would like to do in this post is to share a passage from a book by a friend, a passage that I have posted here before and can't help but share again because I like it so much and it fits today's feast:
In their attempt to supplement Mary's virginal birth with the explanation that neither Scripture nor tradition provided them, the Church Fathers, in putting Luke's Annunciation passage under their relentless hermeneutical scrutiny, unearthed the aural imagery that lay therein. For once, it made sense to take the ear as the very medium through which the Word entered the virginal body ("for the sense of hearing is the natural channel of words"). As Proclus has Mary explain, "I heard a Word, I conceived a Word, I delivered a Word." The complementary character of spoken (annunciation) and heard word (conception), and the underlining dialectics of sound and silence offered the great preachers of the fifth and sixth centuries a seemingly inexhaustible source of rhetoric that sustaied anything from the longest to the shortest homily. (A personal favorite is the - Christmas? - homily of Cyrus of Panopolis, which in its entirety reads as follows: "Brethren, let the birth of God our Savior Jesus Christ be honored with silence, because the Word of God was conceived in the holy Virgin through hearing alone. To him be glory forever. Amen.")This passage was taken from God after Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic, by John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a book that I happily commend to your attention for reading during Lent or at any other time. Prayers for all on this bright feast, and continued prayers as we journey toward Easter. AMDG.
What lit bonfires in the imagination of the Fathers, however, was the typology entailed in the momentous encounter of Gabriel with Mary. The passage in Luke became the contrapuntal text to Genesis: as Eve in her disobedience (παρακοή) had "given birth" to death, so Mary, the second Eve, through hearing (ἀκοή) gave birth to Life. Whereas Eve obeys (ὑπακοῦειν) the serpent, Mary listens to (ἀκοῦειν) the salutation of the angel. To God's creation of man (Adam), humanity responded with the re-creation of man in the New Adam (Christ). Although both creation and Incarnation are the deeds of the Father's love, Christ's birth could not have happened without Mary's response. Tha's why Mary's fiat mihi in "let it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38) repeats and completes God's fiat as in "let us make man" (Gen 1:26). Both creational formulas share the same paradox: as God creates the world through a self-contraction, that is, a self-limitation of His will,so Mary assents to God's plan of the Incarnation by willfully abandoning her will; "let it be done to me."