And She Conceived by the Holy Spirit

A meditation on the Annunciation and the Angelus

Jean-François Millet, “The Angelus,” 1730
Jean-François Millet, “The Angelus,” 1730 (photo: Public Domain)

Wherever you live, chances are you hear the church bells from time to time. Perhaps you’ve grown so accustomed to their gentle pealing that you don’t even notice, but Catholic churches customarily ring their bells three times each day: at 6:00 a.m., 12:00 noon and 6:00 p.m.

It’s called the Angelus — a call to prayer. The Angelus is a traditional prayer to Mary, the Mother of God, which consists of three short “versicles” and responses, each followed by a Hail Mary, and finally a special concluding prayer. The custom is that the church bells ring three times for each of the invocations and nine times for the concluding prayer.

Although the Angelus had its origins in the 13th century or before, it was in the 16th century that the three daily calls to prayer became standardized.

Pope Paul VI, in the last section of his 1974 apostolic exhortation on proper devotion to Mary, Marialis Cultus, wrote at length about the value of the Angelus.

The French painter Jean-François Millet, one of the founders of the Barbizon School in rural France, commemorated the prayer in an acclaimed painting titled “The Angelus.” In it, a farmer and his wife stop their labors in the field to pray, as they hear the Angelus bells ring in a distant church steeple. The son of a devout farmer and his wife, Millet often saw his parents stop near the end of their day to pray, heads bowed, as the Angelus bells broke into the sunset with their insistent call. Millet sought to recreate the quiet peace of the evening sky, the rosy glow of sunset in the fields, and the pious devotion of the peasant farmers.

There is a story that when Millet’s agent and closest friend, Alfred Sensier, first saw the picture on Millet’s easel, the artist turned to him and asked, “Well, what do you think of it?”

It is the Angelus,” the agent responded, recognizing its deeper meaning.

Yes,” said Millet. “Can you hear the bells?”

The painting is now displayed at The Louvre in Paris.


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The Angelus

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Behold the handmaid of the Lord:
Be it done unto me according to Thy word.

Hail Mary ...

(Here genuflect)
And the Word was made Flesh:
And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary ...

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray. Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.