Our Lady Said Yes to Easter When She Said Yes at the Annunciation
It all began in a little room in Nazareth, where an angel and a girl met to decide the fate of the universe.
Something wonderfully new arrives today,
Come to fling your sadness far, far away.
God has done this, so we need not fear;
Rejoice indeed, for He is here.
It is the moment when you reach down into bedrock, having at last come to the very bottom of the barrel of belief. There you are, face to face with the one fact that determines everything else. The necessary prelude to our common Christian faith, the event antedating all else. And so singular and stunning is it that the sheer exceptionality of the event moves you at once to marvel and exclaim.
Is it Christmas? What about Easter? No, it is not either one. But it is something so entirely indispensable to each that, had it never happened, neither Christmas nor Easter would exist. No Birth and no Resurrection because there would be nothing to celebrate.
It is my absolute favorite feast, by the way, coming like a sudden breath of spring to scatter the late-winter gloom. For one blessed day, all the austerities of Lent are put on hold, each grim privation tossed blithely away. Even were it to fall on a meatless Friday, all bets are off, leaving you free to feast on as many Big Macs as you can shovel into your stomach.
If you’re still clueless, I will tell you. It is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, which unfailingly falls on the 25th of March every blooming year. Of all the mysteries of March, it is the one catalyzing event that sets every other in motion. The whole shooting match starts right here, at the very instant when a young Jewish girl gives God permission. To do what? Why to send his Son into the world for the sake of the world. And why must permission be given for that? Because what will happen in the world can only happen when, from the purity of her Immaculate Heart, she surrenders her whole being to the Mission of the Son.
And where else but in the womb of a woman do conception and birth begin? There precisely is God’s chosen bridal chamber, where the marriage feast of heaven and history takes place, where divinity and humanity are joined. For the wedding of the Incarnate Word with a broken world to take place, however, creaturely permission must be given. Everything hangs on whether a 14-year old virgin girl will say yes. God does not force himself upon anyone, but rather solicits and invites. Her response must not be robotic, but free. “The engendering Spirit,” the poet Denise Levertov reminds us, “did not enter her without consent.”
This was the moment no one speaks of,
When she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
God must wait, then, upon his creature, neither cajoling nor coercing. Yes, but the ground has long been prepared, made most wonderfully fertile for her fiat. It will happen, as the poet Rita Simmonds reminds us, “in soil rich / by Grace prepared / where angels bend a knee:
The chosen ground
is maiden flesh
where Boundless bows
to her consent
that Mystery be conceived!
And so God, ever so quietly, enters the human estate. First as a zygote, then mutating into an embryo, followed by a fetus, which is Latin for little one. Then, at last, a child is born, fruit of an overshadowing so stupendous that words simply fail to give it expression. It cannot get any more amazing than this.
How the poets love rhapsodizing about it! Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, whose image of Mary as the one who “Gave God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy / Welcome in womb and breast / Birth, milk and all the rest,” comes as close as human language ever has in describing so staggering an alliance (the phrase is from Joseph Ratzinger) of Word and flesh, meaning and matter.
Or that splendid Elizabethan spellbinder, John Donne, describing Christ’s coming among us through the portal of Our Blessed Lady as so vast an “immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.” Especially when, as in the year 1608, both Conception and Cross fall upon the same day, thus inspiring one of his most moving Divine Poems, “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day.” There we read of Mary’s “maker put to making, and the Head / Of life, at once, not yet alive, yet dead.
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity (in grief);
At once receiver and the legacy.
The Church, he tells us, “by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one;
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be.
So instructive a conjunction is this, Donne tells us in the final couplet, that we are to remind ourselves of it every day of our lives:
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, up-lay,
And in my life retell it every day.
It is the wonder of Incarnation that we rightly feast upon. And if theology is what happens when faith enters the classroom, then this is what faith is required to understood. That God himself should choose to fall headlong into the world he made, in order to re-make it by first becoming a man in it like every other man. “A God and yet a man?” asks an anonymous poem from the 15th century. “A maid and yet a mother? / Wit wonders that wit can / Conceive this or the other. / A God, and can He die? / A dead man, can he live / What wit can well reply? / What reason reason give? / God, truth itself, does teach it; / Man’s wit sinks too far under / By reason’s power to reach it. / Believe and leave to wonder.”
It will all begin, of course, in that little room in Nazareth, where an angel and a girl are met to decide the fate of the universe. Will God make a new beginning for us by becoming one of us? It all depends. How willing is she to dare disturb the universe by saying Yes to God?