Teacher and Playwright, New York City
And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. [Mary], having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of greeting this should be. (Luke 1:28-29)
The Annunciation is a moment in history that is frequently depicted in Western art. And for good reason, given that the moment when the eternal God took up form as a human inside the womb of the Virgin Mary is certainly a contender for the title of Most Important Moment in all of Creation. Throughout the millennia since that moment, myriad artists have captured the moment in paint and pen—from ancient iconographers to pre-Raphaelites. Take, for example, this famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci. The painting’s composition is fairly typical an image of the Annunciation: Mary sits in a landscape that combines both elements of a private bedchamber and a garden landscape, to emphasize the private and intimate moment of conception occurring. She is a “garden enclosed” (Song of Songs, 4:12) In her chambers, the Virgin is pondering the Scriptures—the Word of God—and lo and behold Gabriel appears, and announces the Word of God will take flesh inside of her.One of the most captivating images is, in my mind, Botticelli’s mystical and intriguing image of the Annunciation. For in this painting, the Virgin and the angel appear to be in separate spaces. In the Da Vinci painting, Gabriel and Mary exist in a common visual world. But in the Botticelli painting, a strong column cuts the picture in half, demarcating a clear, sharp divide between the world of the angel and the world of the virgin. Although Mary humbly inclines her body in response to the words that Gabriel speaks, indicating he has had some effect on her, she does not seem to see him. There is a distance between the two figures that implies a divide between their two planes of reality. In this moment Botticelli has captured the divide between the supernatural and the natural that the Incarnation bridges.
This painting suggests to me that perhaps the revelation of Gabriel to Mary was, like many revelations of the divine in our lives, not as clear as we imagine it to be. As we ponder this great mystery from our privileged position of the future, we see the story clearly. Oh, of course, Mary, the Immaculate Conception, must, in this moment clearly understand and accept God’s will for her life, because she was conceived without the stain of original sin, and thus she is fully open to God’s will, etc., etc. The story is quite clear to us.
But Mary, even in this moment of divine revelation, during which she learns of her role as the Mother of God, does not have a full understanding of what is occurring. Gabriel greets her with the words: “hail, full of grace” and Mary, the Evangelist tells us, is troubled. She does not understand what this greeting means.
When Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she identified herself in a manner that was also troubling for Bernadette’s contemporaries. She identified herself as the Immaculate Conception. Not just as “one immaculately conceived,” but as “The Immaculate Conception.” St. Maximilian Kolbe dedicated his life to understanding this mystery, and teasing out the mystery of who Mary Immaculate is, and why she identifies herself as THE Immaculate Conception. Maximilian begins with attempting to understand the relationship between Mary, the Mother of God, and with the Holy Spirit, her spouse and the Third Person of the Trinity.
In the reflections he wrote in the hours before he was arrested by the Gestapo, on the night of February 17, 1941, Maximilian Kolbe wrote that the Holy Spirit is “The flowering of the love of the Father and the Son.” Thus, “the Holy Spirit is, therefore, the “uncreated, eternal conception,” the prototype of all the conceptions that multiply life throughout the whole universe. The Father begets; the Son is begotten; the Spirit is the “conception” that springs from their love.”
Maximilian Kolbe describes the Holy Spirit as the “uncreated Immaculate Conception,” the eternally conceived in the love between the Father and the Son. And Mary, who was so closely united to God, “most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, was the Immaculata, who never contracted the slightest stain of sin, who never departed in the least from God’s will. United to the Holy Spirit as his spouse, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature. Thus, Mary is the created Immaculate Conception.
St. Maximilian goes on:
“In the Holy Spirit’s union with Mary we observe more than the love of two beings; in one there is all the love of the Blessed Trinity; in the other, all of creation’s love. So it is that in this union heaven and earth are joined; all of heaven with all the earth, the totality of eternal love with the totality of created love. It is truly the summit of love.”
The title of Immaculate Conception is truly magnificent. Mary has been given the gift of belonging to the fundamental reality of the Trinity in a very intimate way. Thus, the Immaculate Conception, meaning Mary’s intimate union with the Trinity, becomes an image for us of how deeply God loves us, and how keenly He thirsts for our union with Him. He desires each human being to be brought into the deep union of the trinity, with no spot of original sin, no obstacle to mar the perfect gift of love between Creature and Creator.
Mary’s revelation at Lourdes is truly astounding: for Mary reveals herself using a name for herself that she would never have been able to fathom during her earthly life. This humble handmaiden of the Lord did not know who she truly was, during her life here on earth. Mary of Nazareth could not have known she was the Immaculata, for the accomplishment of the mission of the Immaculate Conception was the death and Resurrection of her Son. Mary’s own purpose on earth would never be fully clear to her unless viewed through the lens of the Paschal Mystery.
Certainly, Mary knew something of the mission God had given to her: to be the mother of Jesus, who she knew was the Son of God, the one who would redeem Israel. But she did not know the depth of her own vocation. When we see Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we see her as an image of how God wishes we all could be: united so intimately with Him, with no blot of sin to mar our union with Him. Mary knew nothing of this. She did not know that, as the Immaculate Conception, she would become a model of discipleship, the pinnacle of all creation, a sign for all time of how God wishes for each of us to be united to Him.
Although Mary proclaims in her Magnificat that from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1: 48-49) she could not have fully understood her own importance, nor how true that statement would be. For the historical Mary of Nazareth could not see herself with the clarity with which we see her today. The full truth of her own Magnificat would remain hidden from her her entire life on earth.
For Mary would never know this name for herself–the Immaculate Conception–until she had entered into the beatific vision of heaven. The hiddenness of her own vocation reiterates the great beauty of this sign of God’s love for us all. It causes me to wonder what sort of graces we all have been blessed with, that we will never fully understand until we have finished our pilgrimage and are finally home with God.
This brings to mind the fifth of the glorious mysteries of the Rosary: Mary is crowned queen of heaven and earth. Unlike the other mysteries, this mystery of the rosary is not in Scriptures, or apocryphal sources (such as the narrative attributed to St. John, that narrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin), But perhaps it deserves its place in the mysteries of the rosary, as a marker of the “most highly favored one,” the one who is full of grace, finally coming fully into her own, finally understanding that mysterious greeting of the angel so long ago. What a surprise it must have been to Mary, the woman who identified herself solely as the handmaid of the Lord, to learn how highly exalted her place was in heaven.
Perhaps we will not be able to fully understand ourselves this side of heaven. What marvels God is working in us and through us now, that we will never be able to see until we have finally fully entered into heavenly union with God. In the words of St. Paul:“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, is what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2,9).