Of all the Gospel episodes, the Annunciation has long been one of the favorites of poets. The scene is unique and literally earth-shaking: Gabriel’s sudden appearance to the girl Mary, his announcement that she will bear a son who will be “the Son of the Most High,” her puzzlement (“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”), and her final yes—“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”
Especially during Advent, I love going back through some of the hundreds of poems that reflect on this scene. This year, moving chronologically, I began with Hildegard of Bingen’s “Antiphon for the Virgin.” (It’s called an “antiphon” because Hildegard wrote her poetry as chants for the nuns of her 12th century monastery.) The punch of her verbs gives me a sense of the startling and almost violent action of the scene:
Pierced by the light of God
drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed,
swelling with the breath of God.
Pierced… drenched… bloomed… swelling. Such powerful images for God’s overwhelming effect on Mary. And there’s that “light.” Of course it’s a common image for divinity; but picturing God’s light as “piercing” makes me gasp.
John Donne, in his sonnet “Annunciation,” also draws in the divine light, but his interest is in the paradox of Christ’s light being enclosed in the darkness of Mary’s womb. Here’s the final couplet, addressed to Mary:
Thou hast light in dark; and shut’st in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.
Donne’s whole sonnet, in fact, is a play of mind-bending paradoxes:
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in his mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother.
Enjoying how these lines toy with my mind, turning it inside out, I do find that paradox seems particularly fitting for trying to imagine the divine becoming human and the human birthing the divine.
Leaping now to the twentieth century, I land on Rupert Brooke’s “Mary and Gabriel.” But it’s quaking ground, dramatizing something that seems uniquely modern: Mary’s inner tumult at the angel’s appearance and message:
She wished to speak. Under her breasts she had
Such multitudinous burnings, to and fro,
And throbs not understood; she did not know
If they were hurt or joy for her; but only
That she was grown strange to herself, half lonely…
’Twixt tears and laugher, panic hurrying her,
She raised her eyes to that fair messenger.
I like how we’re brought here into the inner life of a very human Mary… whom we meet again in “Mary’s Poem,” by contemporary poet Kathleen Wakefield (Image’s Featured Artist for September 2016).
When she heard infinity
whispered in her ear, did the flashing
scissors in her fingers fall
to the wooden floor and the spool unravel,
the spider’s sly cradle
tremble with love?
That image of “infinity / whisper[ing] in her ear” makes me pause. It’s an image I want to hold still, to meditate with. What would it be like for infinity to whisper in my ear? Do I pray for that? Or does it frighten me? And can my constant inner buzzing quiet down enough for me even to hear infinity’s whisper?
Another “Annunciation,” this one by Katharine Coles in Image issue 83, explicitly draws me—draws all of us—into the scene. What occurs between the angel and Mary, the poem posits, can occur only because they both “forget themselves”: that is, they relinquish their self-grounded identities “so something else can enter.” So God can enter. But us? “We can’t forget ourselves,” the poem states. So, alas, we leave no space for God to enter us, no space for God to radically transform us and—through us—our world.
I feel chagrinned reading Coles’s lines. I know I’m not good at forgetting myself. I wish I were; I pray for it daily—just as I pray to let my being be stilled enough to hear infinity whispering in my ear.
As Christians, we take Mary’s “yes” to God in the Annunciation as our model. Yet when something occurs that asks me to forget myself, my instinctive response is usually a quivering “well, maybe” or “ask me again another time.” Mary’s model remains, though: as a possibility, a hope.
For now, I feel closer to her, and more hopeful for myself, in her next scene in Luke’s Gospel: her visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is pregnant with “my Lord,” Mary responds with her famous Magnificat, which begins:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…
Mary’s Magnificat is the canticle in the Evening Prayer that my husband and I pray every evening from The Liturgy of the Hours. We’ve chanted these lines together thousands of times. Yet as I sing them each time I wonder: am I meant to hear myself along with Mary in her “my” and “me”? Not that I expect all generations to call me blessed! But how about the rest of her words here?
My spirit does rejoice in God; he has certainly looked with favor (and infinite mercy) on my lowliness, my unworthiness; he has surely done great things for me. Just gracing me with this daily opportunity to chant Mary’s words is a great thing.
If I’m not ready to join Mary in her Yes, at least I can join her in “rejoicing in God my Savior.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.Image above by Fabrizio Boschi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.