Edward Dowler reflects on the simplicity of Mary’s ‘Yes!’
A few years ago I went with a friend to the monastery of San Marco in Florence. I was struck by the fact that in the very simple cells in which the monks lived, each one had on the way a sumptuous fresco or wall painting which depicted a scene from the Bible. If you were a member of the community, your personal fresco would become a sort of friend to you, and you would meditate on it night and day. These frescoes were painted by a member of the community: the Dominican friar, known as Fra Angelico in the early fifteenth century. In addition to the paintings in his brothers’ rooms, he painted his way through the monastery: even the door of the safe in the sacristy has its own special painting. At the top of the main flight of stairs in the monastery is a slightly different version of the one that I hope you have sight of. This one was originally a church altar piece at another monastery in Florence, but is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. I thought it might help us to get further into this well-known story from the gospel.
This scene is such an important one because the whole story of the New Testament starts when the angel Gabriel makes the unexpected announcement to Mary that she is to bear a son. If it were a play, these would be the opening words.
In the centre of the painting is Gabriel: the angel or messenger who has been sent by God to announce the news to Mary. We can see that Gabriel comes from the divine world by his gold clothing and his sumptuous gold wings.
Moving in the same direction as Gabriel towards Mary, comes a shaft of light from outside the picture and, contained within it just next to the pillar, a small dove represents the Holy Spirit, reflecting Gabriel’s words: ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’. Trace that shaft of light back to its source at the top left corner of the picture, and you can see the open hands of God the Father. So that diagonal shaft of light connects the Father and the Spirit and the Son who is in Mary’s womb. Through their work, as St John puts it, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’ (Jn 1.9).
What has Mary has been doing before the angel Gabriel’s arrival? A clue seems to be in the book that is open on her knee: it seems she has been reading, perhaps a prayer book or something devotional. But, when Gabriel arrives, Mary needs to look up from what she is reading. This rather speaks to those of us whose favourite activities are, for example, sitting and reading; or watching television or looking at things on our iPads, or perhaps a combination of all three. Nothing is necessarily wrong with those activities in themselves, but the painting shows God interrupting them. Mary has to put down her book; put down what she is doing, and find out what God will do with her.
Another striking thing about Mary is that both her arms and those of Gabriel are crossed in this picture. I was recently watching a somewhat unkind analysis of the body language of the Duchess of Sussex, otherwise known as Meghan Markle. The person doing this said that the way it seems Meghan has been trained as an actress is that if you show that you are saying something in a very heart-felt way if you cross your arms over your chest.
Putting that to one side, experts in human behaviour sometimes talk about the way in which when people are talking to one another they tend to mirror each other. So, for example, if I am talking to you and raise my hand to my face, you might well do the same thing. Gabriel, the messenger from the divine world is someone who Mary mirrors. The action that God has taken and sent his messenger to convey is the same action that Mary is going to reflect in her own life; in her willingness to bear a son. Mary’s life mirrors the divine life.
And there’s perhaps a further aspect to it: their arms are crossed. The Jesus whose birth the angel announces is never just a cutesy baby: he is the Lord who will be crucified and who will rise from the dead. Is it reading too much into it to say that those crossed arms seem to foreshadow that? In the joy and hope of the moment at which Mary learns that she will conceive and bear a son, there is also a hint of the cross that is to come to him.
But that sense of foreboding is not the uppermost one because joy is so important to this picture and the gospel reading on which it is based. Gabriel’s first word to Mary is ‘Rejoice’. In the prayer that we say based on this gospel reading, it’s ‘Hail, Mary’. You can’t see this clearly in the reproduction that you have but at the bottom of the frame, between the main picture and the smaller pictures are the Latin words of that same prayer: the Hail Mary.
‘Hail’ in English sounds like a simple ‘hello’. But the original Greek, the word is ‘chairé’, which means ‘rejoice’: ‘Rejoice, favoured one, the Lord is with you’. So that is the first word, which kicks off the entire story. In this picture Gabriel and Mary actually look rather serious and one might think not especially joyful. But perhaps we can see in the interaction between them as they bow towards one another in a non-socially distanced way, not a superficial, smiley happiness, but a deep inner joy and stillness: a radiance that comes from knowing that God is present with them; that he has a purpose for them and indeed has a purpose for us.
Outside the space where Gabriel and Mary are having this encounter in the left hand third of the picture is a further detail. Here another angel drives a couple out of a garden with fruit at their feet. It’s not difficult to work out who they are, though may initially be a bit of a surprise that they have found their way into a picture of the Annunciation. They are of course Adam and Eve from the beginning of the Old Testament. Mary’s obedience has now taken the place of their disobedience. As the fresco shows, they have discarded the fruit that they ate in the garden, which is now replaced by the fruit of Mary’s womb. They are driven out of the picture of all that God is doing, while she patiently abides within it.
So, if we read the painting from left to right it contains a sort of promise for us at the beginning of Mary’s month: a promise that often seems almost too good to be true but that nevertheless as Christians we believe is true. The promise is that, while things may seem very bleak in a world marked by disease, uncertainty, lockdown, loneliness, financial uncertainty and all the rest of it, yet the angels of God are remorselessly driving that world away. And they are ushering in a new world of love and joy and grace which comes to us through Mary’s devoted obedience. And as we look at this wonderful fresco by Fra Angelico, and as indeed we come to Mass this afternoon, we will see this new order opening up in front of our eyes and know that we are part of it.
Then the one sitting on the throne spoke: ‘Now I am making the whole of creation new’, he said (Rev 21.5).
The Venerable Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings. This sermon was preached at the Society of Mary’s May Devotion held at St Silas, Kentish Town on Saturday 8th May 2021.