The Annunciation: When Angels Held Their Breath

The Feast of the Annunciation marks the day when Mary said “Yes” to God. May today be the day we say “Yes” to Him, too.

Federico Barocci (1535–1612), “The Annunciation”
Federico Barocci (1535–1612), “The Annunciation” (photo: Public Domain)

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux writes that when Saint Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of God, it was as though the angels in Heaven held their breath waiting for her reply.

Prior to that moment, the angels in Heaven were well aware that the Incarnation was to occur. It is believed, however, that the angels did not know exactly how the Incarnation was to occur. Saint Maximus of Constantinople, for instance, writes: “There can be no question that the angels knew that Incarnation was to take place. But it was not given to them to trace the manner of our Lord’s conception...” Mary also knew that her Savior was coming, but like the angels, Mary did not know exactly how this was to occur.

Then, on March 25—that glorious and wonderful day—what had been shrouded in mystery since Adam’s Fall became clear. Gabriel greeted Mary and informed her that God had chosen her to be the Mother of God…if she would say “yes.” After Gabriel spoke, the angels of Heaven awaited Mary’s response.

Consider the perspective of the angels. To that point, the angels had witnessed the first woman, Eve, betray God by partaking in a sin that devastated man. And now, Mary—the New Eve—was being asked to play a role in the redemption of man. 

Both women, Eve and Mary, were created without Original Sin on their souls. (Eve walked the world before sin had entered it, whereas Mary was pre-redeemed by God before her conception, thus immaculate.) Beyond that remarkable similarity, greater contrasts between Eve and Mary seem impossible.

In the Garden of Eden, Eve is motivated by pride whereas Mary is motivated by humility; Eve by love of self, Mary by love of God. Eve, in a desperate act of pride, blindly obeys a serpent; Mary, in her humility, has the vision to obey God. Eve is the co-conspirator in introducing sin and death to the world, and Mary is the co-Redemptrix in overcoming sin and death. Eve says “No” to God, and the Old Testament begins in tragedy; Mary says “Yes” to God, and the New Testament begins in triumph.

And there is no doubt about that triumph. Because Mary answered, “Be it done to Me according to thy word.”

And the angels breathed again.

At the Annunciation, Mary’s purity is evident. Mary’s faith is simple, overwhelmingly simple, in her response. Mary’s humility is clear. After Mary is told that she has found favor with God, she is astonished. Why? Saint Thomas Aquinas answers that question, explaining: “To a humble mind, nothing is more astonishing than to hear its own excellence.” In fact, when she is told she has found favor, Mary’s humility does not diminish, but seems to deepen. As St. Ambrose writes: “She calls herself His handmaid, who is chosen to be His mother, so far was she from being exalted by the sudden promise.”

Today, Catholics all over the world and in Heaven celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. Today, we need not hold our breath, awaiting Mary’s response. We know her answer.

But it’s worth considering whether this particular feast day finds us holding own our breath, rather than offering our respond to God. Maybe your guardian angel is holding his breath, waiting for you to finally say “yes” to God. Some of us may have even stopped spiritually breathing long ago and have not yet returned to God.

Maybe some of us don’t even know the way back.

Today, however, is a reminder of how to come home. In a world obsessive with impurity, compulsive with pride, and disordered by unbelief, we need a devotion to Mary, who is pure, humble, and faithful. If we have wandered from our Father in Heaven, Mary our Mother can help us find a way back to Him.

Today, all over the world, the sacrament of Penance is being offered. Some of us have not been to Confession in many years. Some may think that it’s too hard to go, too much to endure, too much to fear. If that’s where you find yourself, ask Mary to hold your hand through the process. Ask Mary to help you start breathing again.

The Feast of the Annunciation marks the day when Mary said “Yes” to God. May today be the day we say “Yes” to Him, too. What a wonderful day to come home!

This article originally appeared March 25, 2017, at the Register.