Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary
“May it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
In the monastery of San Marco in Florence there is a painting. You don’t know it is there, at first. You walk along a blonde stone corridor, quite plain, in the way that monasteries are plain, open, in the middle, with columns framing a small square of green grass and the sky. Up a stairway, plainer still, to a bend in the stair. Turn the corner and there, at the top of the stairs – suddenly an angel!
An angel with kaleidoscope wings, gold and red and white and gold and blue and magenta and blue and blue and blue. The wings fill the world, it seems, there at the top of the stairs, and the plain walls are touched with splendour.
It is Gabriel, come to tell Mary that she will have a son.
Greetings, highly favoured lady, Mary full of grace: The Lord is with you.
Mary is a young woman with a red band around her hair, sitting in a corridor – a corridor, I realize, just like the one I have walked through – and the angel is about six inches from her knees.
Glory! Glory has stepped into her life, and this word: the Lord is with you. And angel wings beat the stone walls now as then and this is what the angel says:
Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus.
Everything about this day – the ordinary corridor, the bare stairway, the young woman with a hairband sitting on a bench – everything about this day is normal. This is just her life, and mine, and yours. This is the hallway the brothers walk every morning, going to their rooms to pray.
And it is also the place of angel fire. It is the place of the Word.
ἰδοὺ! Behold! A young woman will have a child and his name will be Jesus, “the One who saves.”
Fra Angelico (“Angelic Brother,” they called him, because his paintings were so beautiful) painted this glory on the bare walls of the monastery so that each day the brothers, climbing the stairs from breakfast to their cells could hear in their quiet lives an echo of angel wings.
And Mary in the middle of it.
Suddenly the angel six inches from her knees; this girl with the hairband overtaken by the real glory of God.
And Mary says yes. God blows into her life on this Wednesday and she just says yes. Γένοιτό μοι. May it be so, with me. Thy word, may it be my life.
Mary’s yes. It stands too at the top of the stairs. This girl with the hairband, giving her life. At the Word. To the Word. For the Word. Giving her life. Mary says, “Yes, Lord. May it be with me according to your word.”
And so the brothers as they climb the steps (and I…and I) hear now in the bare corridors a child’s cry, and running feet perhaps, and a mother laughing.
Fra Angelico saw the hope that paints our ordinary lives: God with us. Angel wings beating at the edges of our vision and a young woman’s extraordinary yes. And the child, and another yes, in another garden, at the far side of the story: “Yet not what I want, Father, but what you want.” May it be with me according to your word.
God with us in the child.
It is a word I need to hear, this Wednesday, this here and now, climbing the stairs again this morning, each of us in our own rooms again, praying for Italy and Spain and New York; praying like the monks for the world.
At the bottom of the painting the artist has written, “When you come before the face of the ever Virgin, don’t forget to say an Ave.” Is that why the angel wings fill the world at the top of those stairs? So that we might not forget? So that we might not forget that angel six inches from Mary’s knees, so that we might not forget the young woman saying yes. So that we might not forget the child who walks with us, now, in this time of need. So that we might turn to him as Mary did, simply. So that we might turn to the Word and pray.