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March 24, 2013
Right before Holy Week begins this year, the sweetest of the Marian feasts. I preached on the Fra Angelico fresco in Convento di San Marco in Florence, the annunciation one encounters at the top of the stairs to the second floor, where the monks' cells are. There is the young girl in her walled garden, and there is the angel, seeming to have rushed into the garden from somewhere stage right. They lean toward each other, each with arms crossed upon the breast. Other annunciations by other painters are caught indoors: she is in her room, reading an ornate book or spinning. Her immaculate bed sits discreetly nearby. The angel speaks in some of them, a gossamer banner issuing from his mouth upon which the famous words appear in gold: Ave Maria, gracia plena! Dominus tecum. The nineteenth century gives us something more thoughtful: the angel is a soulful --and sometimes wingless -- young man. One of them peeks through a window for the conversation -- we see only his haloed head. The encounter is quiet, philosophical, with an interiority that makes us think the whole thing might be a dream. Or something more sensual: the curves of Mary's body are plainly visible through her nightclothes in a way not hazarded by earlier painters. There is shock, and some resistance, in her posture: Let it be to me according to thy will does not come automatically.

It seldom does. Neither discerning the will of God nor following it comes easily to us. We have questions, which do seem to come naturally to us: we seem to have been created curious. And we fear for our futures: Mary knows very well what an out-of-wedlock baby will mean in her small town. Thirty years later, her son knows the kind of world he lives in, too, and he fears the road that lies ahead. Wishes he could wish it away. Who, who loves life, would not ask for the cup of death to pass from him? But both of them go forward anyway, fear or no fear.

See the week ahead through her eyes, and through his. Watch her watching him ride into town in that ragtag parody of a Roman triumph, certain to draw the attention of people who do not wish him well. Remember that she and his brothers tried to stop him, begged him to give it up and come home, and remember how brusquely he refused. Watch her watching him dig himself in deeper and deeper, until it is clear to everyone that he will not get out of Jerusalem alive. And watch her cooking, preparing the special foods for the meal she suspects will be his last. And watch her standing numbly before him as her hangs there, her own boy. She cannot bear to look, but she cannot look away. No one else who watches that sees half of what she sees. Oh, no: no one else remembers the moment when his birth was foretold. No one else is his mother.

A time-honored way to meditate on the Passion is to imagine oneself one of the characters we meet in the story. This year, when Easter is early, when we celebrated the Annunciation only to move right into holy Week, let that person be Mary. Walk with her, if you dare, the walk no one ever takes willingly, the one that leads to the greatest loss a human being can have -- not her own life, but the life of her child. Because this old story is about that, too.
Copyright © 2022 Barbara Crafton
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