The feast of the Annunciation coincides with Good Friday this year, inviting us to think about the two feasts together. The liturgy has a marvelous way of collapsing time, making events that are separate in historical time coexist for the participants. If we keep in mind the two events of the Annunciation and the Passion, March 25 will be an occasion to reflect on how these mysteries meet in our own lives.
We might consider the connection between the beginning and the end. Already, at his conception, Jesus' mission was given. Through his life, he grew into it until faithfulness to this mission led to the ultimate sacrifice. We might think, then, of the life's mission into which each of us has been growing, and what sacrifices it has and is likely to exact. Such meditation will surely lead to earnest prayer for the grace to be faithful and the courage to face the consequences of that faithfulness.
For Mary this day also marks a beginning and an end. The Annunciation marked the beginning of her motherhood, and Good Friday signaled an ending that was also a beginning. In the course of surrendering one son to death, she was asked to adopt another and take him as her own.
Artists through the ages have understood the deep intermingling of joy and sorrow for Mary in the original invitation from God. They convey it in overt and subtle ways. An early (c. A.D. 700) silk panel shows a spindle in the shape of a cross. Robert Campin shows crosses in the windows and in the sconces of the room where Mary sits. Leonardo da Vinci depicts Mary at a lectern placed on a sarcophagus when she receives the angel.
In these ways, artists imply that the shadow of the cross will accompany Mary as she mothers this son of God. It will accompany her until she climbs a hill to stand beneath the cross that casts the shadow and unites herself to the sufferings of her beloved. Who among us has not embarked on a path full of hope that it would bring joy and happiness, only to find that an admixture of suffering is inevitable? The joyful and the sorrowful mysteries lead to glory; one does not have transformation without both.
The coming together of the feasts is most illuminating, I think, with respect to the resonances between Mary and Jesus. Again, artists give us clues. They sometimes set the Annunciation scene in a garden, as does the Japanese artist Watanabe, when he pictures Mary approached by the angel while watering plants. This theme is paralleled by depictions of the crucifixion in which the New Adam dies on the tree of life from the Garden of Eden, often with images of Adam and Eve at the bottom of the cross. Thus Mary, the New Eve, conceives the Word of God and reverses the curse laid on the original Eve. Jesus, the New Adam, turns the tree that brought death into a tree of life, reopens the gates of paradise, and brings salvation to the original couple and all their descendants.
On the day that she received the message of an angel, Mary declared herself the "slave" of God and uttered words that have been cherished for centuries: "Be it done to me according to your Word." Early in the morning on the day he would die, her son, who Paul said had "taken the form of a slave," expressed similar sentiments by saying: "Not my will, but yours be done." I realize that this language of slavery is shocking to contemporary readers. Yet "slave" is the best translation of the word that Luke and Paul use to convey the extent to which Mary and Jesus voluntarily put themselves at the disposal of God. By her declaration, Mary gave her body and her entire life over to the designs of God. Jesus, who had symbolically given his body for all on the day we call Holy Thursday, now gives it in reality on this Friday we call Good.
Perhaps from the New Eve and the New Adam, both servants of God, we can learn that it is not only the public and dramatic sacrifices that contribute to the healing of the world. Mary in her hidden life grew in holiness. When the time came to join her son at the site of public execution, she was ready. Catherine of Siena captures the import of this perfectly when she says of Mary:
. . . the world was redeemed
when in the Word your own flesh suffered:
by his passion redeemed us;
by your grief of body and spirit.[i]
Some years ago, the Women's Ordination Conference chose March 25 as their annual Women's Ordination Day of Prayer. This adds another layer to these ruminations on the ways that Mary and Jesus are connected in the great work of redemption. It might well help us think about the current struggle to understand roles for women and men in the church and whether or not they are determined by one's gender.
The Liturgy of Good Friday will supersede the Feast of the Annunciation this year, and there will most likely be no mention of the Annunciation or, perhaps, of the name of Mary (since John's Passion account refers to her as "mother" and "woman"). Still, if we advert to the cosmic coincidence that brings together two central Christian mysteries on March 25, we will find food for our meditations and a new angle for our entry into the graces of Good Friday.
[i] In Suzanne Noffke, Catherine’s Prayers (New York: Paulist, 1983), Prayer 18, 156.
[Mary Aquin O’Neill is a Sister of Mercy who holds the doctorate in religion from Vanderbilt University. After many years of college teaching, she founded Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women and was its director from 1992 to 2009. Since the center closed in August of 2013, Sr. Aquin is in semi-retirement, writing as well as giving lectures and retreats.]