Today, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, looks to the day that Our Lady was born, which is why it is celebrated nine months after the feast of her Immaculate Conception. The history of this feast, and the sources which the Church has drawn on in order to make sense of the early life of Our Blessed Mother, is outlined in this excellent post. Here though, I would like to reflect on something (via a recently discovered poem) that is at the heart of all Marian devotion – the way in which all that we know of Mary and her life always points to her Son.
I came across the following poem – The Annunciation, by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir – only yesterday, and as I had already prepared a post for this morning, was unsure as to whether it was worth commenting on today, or perhaps best kept for Advent. However, after reflecting on the Nativity of Our Lady, I considered what it is that is special about her birth, and grew to see just how deeply this motif of ‘pointing’ is within all the Marian feasts. The reason we celebrate the birth of Mary is because she was born to be the one who would conceive and bear the Son of God – she was chosen before all ages to be the one who would meet Gabriel, hear his proposal, and give that consent upon which all our salvation depended.
Edwin Muir’s poem communicates this sense of momentousness by angling our perspective towards that of the archangel – so we see, from the outlook of one who is able to gaze upon the blessed countenance of God eternally, and has entered into our world to deliver a message to one time-bound and mortal, that his experience of wonder and trepidation is as great, perhaps even more so, than that of Our Lady. He stands before the one who, since her birth, has been walking a path to this very moment, when she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit (c.f.; Luke 1:35), and who has therefore been prepared in purity, completely free of sin, so that she might be worthy to bear Our Saviour. This paradoxical moment of humility and exaltation combined is present as a seed in both her conception and her birth, and the angel rightly trembles before her:
The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.
The concluding stanza is one in which our sense of Gabriel’s experience of mystery and awe is supplemented by a reminder of Mary’s sharing in the momentousness of the occasion. She returns his gaze, ‘through the endless afternoon’, as if the eternal consequence of what is being realised here has been transported into temporal body language, the intense continuation of their meeting echoing the profundity of what has been announced and what has been consented to. Prior to this, we hear also of how the world carries on regardless outside – footsteps falling, the people of the world spinning out their days, unaware of what is taking place within the walls of Saint Joachim and Saint Anne’s humble abode.
Something similar must, I imagine, have taken place at the time Our Lord was born – a stillness in the midst of all the confusion and noise of life, a sense of eternity having broken into time. Moreover, at the birth of Our Lady herself, one can envisage her parents and those others present being struck by the feeling of this birth being not just an occasion for joy as all births are, but also that here is someone special, with a special task in the world. Gabriel certainly felt that when many years later he was to meet Our Lady in Nazareth, and was struck by the mystery of this humble mortal woman, chosen before all ages to be the means by which God would join Himself to human nature and our Salvation brought into the world – so much so that each feather did ‘tremble on his wings.’