The Annunciation

“The love which our Blessed Lady had for God was so great, that she suffered keenly through her desire for union with Him; hence the Eternal Father, to console her, sent her His only and beloved Son.”

The quote is from Saint Philip Neri, a little book of his maxims and counsels arranged for every day (published by the Toronto Oratory). It is in the nature of saints to look at things from unexpected angles; it is in God’s nature to act from every direction at once. Enter, however modestly, into the infinite mind of God, and one begins to discern what the world easily overlooks: in this case, Our Lady’s “private” spiritual condition, prior to the Annunciation.

According to the Canticle in Luke, “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaid.”

Saint Philip has taken it from the top, as we say in show business. His maxim has in a moment of genius glimpsed Mary as God saw her, and as she saw herself. There was a congruence there, in her own youthful sanctity, this peasant Jewish girl from Galilee, who had all the makings of a Christian nun, and more. Under current worldly conditions, we forget that this is possible: that over the generations and centuries quite a number of women, as young as Mary or younger, have become utterly fixated upon the divine. The idea of “perpetual virginity” is so alien to the current fashion, that we are inclined to doubt it is possible. Except as a punishment.

I am struck by the contemporary response to the ancient Christian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, as of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth. We just can’t believe anyone was so “pure.” Which is a paradox: for in the same moment we think this we have undermined our notion that there is no such thing as purity. We have revealed that we know exactly what we are denying. This is the paradox of atheism. I’ve never met an atheist who did not know exactly which God did not exist, little as he knew Him.

To this modern mindset, which denies the very possibility of scandals, since a moral “judgement” would be required to define one, there must have been a scandal somewhere. The Church must be covering something up. So perverse have we become, that even Catholics who nominally uphold the Church teaching in this matter, and accept that Jesus was “born of a virgin” — or by parthenogenesis as it is called in fish biology — become exhausted after that. They just can’t believe Mary continued to be a virgin. Not in her circumstances.

Never having come to terms with original sin, we are in no position to imagine its absence. Mary was free of it; was herself conceived without any tincture of “original sin.” How strange. For as Chesterton put it, “The man who denies original sin believes in the Immaculate Conception of everybody.”

There is nothing quite like a genuine Catholic nun to fly in the face of everything our world currently believes, or thinks it does. Her vows are not those of a “normal” person; for most of us they are inconceivable. Her fidelity to those vows can only be attributed to some sort of brainwashing. And yet they keep coming forward, even today, voluntarily, to live the charitable and contemplative life of nuns; to serve Christ in obedience without hesitation.

Look around, gentle reader. What do you think it is in the world, as we find it today, that might brainwash a girl into keeping a vow of perpetual virginity?


“Why me?” is a question we often ask, or at least I do, when any of the world’s various tribulations are offered, including quite minor ones. “Now look here, Lord,” I have often thought, “I have enough crosses on my plate already. Why not give this one to X [name of some loved, but intensely disliked person]. His plate appears to be empty.”

The sinful mind is full of thoughts about fairness, and for good reason. God isn’t “fair”: not in any normal human sense of the term. He is what we call “biased.” For instance, He seems habitually to dump a lot more of the world’s least comfortable burdens on the best people. Too, He lets the wicked prosper. Hence that old mediaeval saw that Teresa of Avila repeated: “When I see how you treat your friends, my Lord, I understand why you have so few of them.”

In particular, God must necessarily be in defiance of every article of every human rights code, and every other piece of interventionist legislation from our dear Nanny State. All such were written, after all, to correct some obvious unfairness that somehow got by Him; or on closer inspection, that He actually authored. He made men different from women, gave brains different capacities, made skins different colours, and has what looks very much like an unhealthy obsession with the Jews. In the received progressive view, God might or might not exist. But if He does, He is a duffer, and we are put to constant trouble correcting His innumerable, awkward-squad mistakes.

God is, when you think of it, incredibly unfair, both in withholding and granting His favours. He lets some people get born with terrible disabilities, he lets others float by on native cunning, which is to say, a cunning with which they were born. For as everyone knows, people were not actually born equal: some with silver spoons, some with silver tongues.

On the other hand, it does not usually occur to us to thank God for some special favour, some personal advantage or other blessing — to ask, “Why me, O Lord?” in guileless puzzlement over our own good fortune. Why me, when some slum kid could have made better use of my natural ability — to pick locks, for instance? Or ace job interviews, or psych out applications for government arts funding? Rather, we take such things in our stride.

Nor does it frequently occur, even to practising Christians, that the talents might be endowed to some end or ends — perhaps even other than those to which we have applied them. That they might be used to serve Him, for instance, in some dimly discernible way. We look on them more as personal property, and on property itself as a human right. We have a “right to choose” what to do with anything that belongs to us, and that certainly includes our talents, or anything else attached to us from birth, or if you will, from conception. A baby, for instance, should some woman (why is it always a woman, eh?) suddenly find herself in possession of one. It is her baby, no? It is after all indisputably living inside her body. What right has anyone else to decide what she will do with it?

The Blessed Virgin had similarly a right to choose: in her case even before the fact of pregnancy. In theory, she could have said, “Why me, O Lord? Have You any idea what a mess this will make of my life?” From our contemporary view, this would be an extremely reasonable position. Perhaps it was only because of that Immaculate Conception — from her own birth free of original sin — that it seems not to have occurred to her to tell the angel to tell God, “No, thank you.” Except, she was human and it did occur: she told Gabriel plainly what the problem would be. And having stated it for the record, she then told him, “YES!” and became the New Eve.

Moreover, such was the faith of this peasant Jewish girl from Galilee (probably illiterate), she grasped immediately that she was deciding not only for herself, but on behalf of all creation, and all mankind for all time to come:

“All generations shall call me blesséd.”

Now, that was rather tough on all those who ever wished that Christ had never been born. You talk about unfair: any agnostic can see the whole thing was a set-up. For rather than taking a decision that would effect us all forever to, say, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, God picked some poor Palestinian girl — a religious nutjob without so much as a high school certificate. (His contempt for credentials has since been exhibited in various other ways. Frankly, I share it.)

On a point of fact, Mary’s prediction, conveyed through Luke’s Canticle, was on the money. Christians in every generation, and even Muslims by their book, have called her blesséd, as we know people were doing from the first generation after Mary’s Assumption into Heaven — from e.g. the graffiti discovered by the archaeologists mucking about in the grotto underneath the present-day Basilica of the Annunciation, at Nazareth. For the site was from the start “the shrine of Mary.”

Given the antiquity of the site, and temporal proximity to Jesus’ own generation, I would dare to speculate that the very home in which Mary was wife, and Joseph was husband, and Jesus was child, is extremely nearby. Indeed, faith tells me to look in the same place — just as faith told the scholarly Franciscan diggers to look for the house of Simon Peter right under the ruined foundation of the first Byzantine Basilica at Capernaum; or for other archaeologists to seek the tomb of the same down deep beneath the altar of Saint Peter’s Basilica at Rome.

For nothing gets results like faith and reason, when you plug one into the other. (Nor fails so quickly, when they become unplugged.)


Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est: “For He that is mighty hath done great things to me: and holy is His name.”

This is the mystery of the fiat of Heaven, the decree that we are strangely free to honour or ignore. In our sinfulness, we usually ignore it. But she who was without sin honoured it without hesitation, becoming in that moment the Mother of God. At the moment of His earthly conception, she, as his mother, set for the world His first example, of joyful obedience to the Father’s will.

We sinners find this hard to understand. We moderns are afraid to render the fiat as Mary did; are alarmed even to hear it, because God’s plan for our own future may not be congruent with our own plans. And it is true that we have the right to choose: the way of life or the way of death. And have been given some time to think about it. But while thinking, we should seriously consider:

That his mercy is from generation to generation: unto them that fear Him.

That He hath shown strength with His arm: that He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their heart.

That He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

That He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich He hath sent empty away.

That He hath received Israel His servant: being mindful of His mercy.

(As, indeed, He spake to our forefathers: Abraham and to his seed for ever.)