Seen from this side the veil, the wonder of the Incarnation is the descent of Godhead to us: yet seen from the standpoint of Eternity, it may well be that the truer wonder is the ascent of our humanity to Him. In the eyes of the angels that boundless generosity is but the meet expression of His nature: donner est chose naturel à Dieu. It is rather in Mary’s receptivity that these would find the miracle: in that unique example of a perfect response.
Life as they see it, that mounting flood of Spirit ever striving, tending, towards God, here touched Reality at last. So many had gone up the mountain to that one desired encounter; only to be thwarted by the cloud that broods upon the summit, and hides from human eyes the Shining Light within. The great prophets, poets, and philosophers of the antique world — all these had gone up, all had marked classic moments in the ascent of the race. Then came a little girl, pure, meek, and receptive: and ran easily to her destiny and the destiny of the Universe because she was "full of grace." She held out her heart to the Invisible, and in this act flung a bridge across the chasm which separates Illusion from Reality.
Mary becomes by this circumstance the type and pattern of each human soul. Consciously or unconsciously, all are candidates for her high office: all are striving towards the Transcendent, stretching towards the contact of the Divine. She alone, because of her lowliness, "failed not of the prick, the which is God." Sealed and made safe by His touch on her, she remained for all time immaculate — the veritable Sophia, the unspotted virgin, yet the fruitful mother of the soul’s true life.
‘ "Quem cum amavero, casta sum,
cum tetigero, munda sunt,
cum accepero, virgo sum!"
|"If I love Him I shall be chaste,
If I touch Him I shall be clean,
If I embrace Him I shall be virgin indeed."
(Roman Breviary: Matins of the Feast of St Agnes: Third Responsary.)
This is a part of the great paradox of purity, the shining chastity of love, whereby:
‘ ". . . Of pure Virgins none
Is fairer seen
Than Mary Magdalene."
"Hail, Mary, full of grace," said the angel. To him that hath, shall be given. Because Mary was full of grace, to her was vouchsafed the crowning grace of the created order: the life of God upspringing within her, the deification of humanity.
O felix mens et beata anima, quæ te Dominum Deum suum meretur devote suscipere, et in tua susceptione spirituali gaudio repleri! O quam magnum suscipit Dominum, quam dilectum inducit hospitem, quam jucundum recipit socium, quam fidelem acceptat amicum, quam speciosum et nobilem amplectitur sponsum: præ omnibus dilectis, et super omnia desiderabilia amandum!
|Ibid. "O happy mind and blessed soul, that is found worthy to receive Thee, its Lord and God, and in receiving Thee, to be fulfilled with spiritual joy! O how great a Lord it entertains, how dear a Guest brings in, how joyous a Comrade receives, how faithful a Friend does welcome, how lovely and noble a Bridegroom does embrace: even Him who is to be loved before all things that are beloved, and above all things that are to be desired I" (De Imitatione Christi, L. IV., cap. 3.)
How hard, we say, for the little human animal to rise to such a height! Yet perhaps it was not very difficult: for she did but carry up to a sublime and simple operation humanity’s greatest and most natural activity — the act of prayer. She stretched to God: and where a way is open, He cannot but come in. "Thy opening and His entering are but one moment," said Eckhart, for Spirit waits eternally at the door of the flesh: "and to wait until thou openest is harder for Him than for thee." Only the opposition of our separated will hinders the perpetual incarnation of the Spirit of God: hence Mary’s willing receptivity, her humble self-surrender, was the direct condition of the inflow of His Life — that "rippling tide of Divine love" which breaks in light and colour on the human shore, but has: behind it the whole weight of the ocean of Godhead, pressing relentless to its bourne. "For the Spirit of God," says Boehme, "goeth with the willing into the soul, it desireth the soul; it setteth its magia towards the soul; the soul needs only to open the door."
"Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is the King of glory? It is the Lord strong and mighty, even the Lord mighty in battle."
Thus does the Announcing Angel cry at the closed door of the heart: and quick behind him, bearing him upon its current, comes the inpouring torrent of the Spiritual Life. "The Lord strong and mighty, even the Lord mighty in battle" — the all-conquering Love, as a rushing wind and as a purging flame, inhabitating the human creature, searching body, soul, and spirit to the deeps, turning purity to ardour, and making of the obedient Maiden the Mother of her Saviour and her God.
But Mary did not hear the splendid periods of that message. For her one phrase was enough. "The Lord is with thee": all was told in this. "Thou art full of grace; thy door is open. The Lord is with thee: God is thy possession here and now." When the awakened soul knows this indeed, no more needs to be announced to it. All hangs then on its response. And Mary said: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word." Will and grace, which "rise and fall together," here rose to their classic expression and had their perfect work. The soul, says St Bernard, is in essence "a capacity for the Infinite." In this her being, her very existence, consists. That capacity is no mere quality, it is herself: and on her acceptance of this, the governing fact of her nature, the whole of her cyclic history depends. "Be it unto me according to thy word." I am human, so a home for Thee.
How then shall it happen to us — this act of self-realisation, this pure impulse of surrender, this first beginning of our new career? Where shall the news of our royal vocation reach us: at what point shall a messenger lean out to us from the sheltering world of spirit, to cry Dominus tecum in our astonished ears? We cannot know. In the dreams of the old painters, Gabriel did not always flash upon Mary as she knelt in prayer. Sometimes he found her as she sat musing in the twilight; sometimes as she went to draw water at the well. Sometimes he woke her from sleep in the early morning; or slid within her vision as she worked at her embroidery frame. So too with us. Grace laughs at our little barriers: our artificial separation of sacred from profane. Perhaps we shall hear his murmurous Ave in a silent hour of contemplation: perhaps it will come to us, clear and startling, from out the ecstasies of love. It may be in the exultant periods of music, or shining in the eyes of the poor, the maimed, and the unworthy, that the angel of our Annunciation will come. It matters not. Whether that illumination come to us from the altar or from the teeming streets, out of a radiant sky, or from the midst of many sorrows — whether it find us at work or at play, at war with the world or at peace "one thing only is necessary," the instant eagerness of our response.
Domine Deus meus, creator meus, et redemptor meus, cum tali affectu, reverentia, laude et honore, cum tali gratitudine, dignitate et amore, cum tali fide, spe et puritate, te affecto hodie suscipere, sicut te suscepit et desideravit sanctissima mater tua, gloriosa virgo Maria, quando Angelo evangelizanti sibi incarnationis mysterium, humiliter ac devote respondit: Ecce ancilla Domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
"O Lord my God, my Creator, and my Redeemer, with such affection, reverence, praise, and honour; with such gratitude, worthiness, and love; with such faith, hope, and purity; do I desire to receive Thee this day, as Thy most Holy Mother, the glorious Virgin Mary, received and desired Thee when to the angel who brought her the glad tidings of the Mystery of the Incarnation she humbly and devoutly replied, Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word." (De Imitatione Christi, L. IV., cap. 17.)