The Greatest Joy Save Himself: A Reflection on the Feast of the Annunciation 2023

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the commemoration of the Angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary to tell her of her huge and harrowing role in God’s plan for Israel and the whole world. It is not, as we tend to think of it, properly a ‘feast of Mary’, but a ‘feast of Christ’, and yet it is impossible to contemplate it at all without remembering both. And this is as it should be. While Mary is certainly not a major motif in Julian of Norwich’s writings, she is very much present. And I think that the way Julian engages with Mary is a helpful one, representative of the best of Christian theological reflection on Mary’s place within the faith, neither making too much of her nor too little.

Mary first appears in Julian’s eleventh revelation:

[O]ur good Lord looked down on his right, and brought to my mind where our Lady [i.e., Mary] stood at the time of his Passion, and he said: Do you wish to see her? And these sweet words were as if he had said, I know well that you wish to see my blessed mother, for after myself she is the greatest joy that I could show you, and the greatest delight and honour to me, and she is what all my blessed creatures most desire to see. And because of the wonderful, exalted and singular love that he has for this sweet maiden, his blessed mother, our Lady St. Mary, he reveals her bliss and joy through the sense of these sweet words, as if he said, do you wish to see how I love her, so that you could rejoice with me in the love which I have in her and she in me? And for greater understanding of these sweet words our good Lord speaks in love to all mankind who will be saved, addressing them all as one person, as if he said, do you wish to see in her how you are loved? It is for love of you that I have made her so exalted, so noble, so honourable; and this delights me. (Ch 25)*

So, from the specificity of Christ’s love for his earthly mother Mary, Julian comes to know and understand his love for everyone: “Do you wish to see in her how you are loved?” This is precisely how Mary was understood and venerated throughout much of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. She is unquestionably important, as her formal title “the Mother of God” shows. But she is important as an icon of the Church, of all of the faithful. Her exaltation is a symbol of what awaits us all in God’s love. As she bore Christ uniquely in her own way, we too bear Christ in our different way, in spirit rather than in the body, but no less truly. We carry him within us and, like her, we are exalted in God’s love.

But, in that wonderful Gospel way, the image also works when turned inside out. We see this in how Julian next talks about Mary, in between her fourteenth and fifteenth visions. Here her reflections run closer to theme of today’s feast:

For the same virtues which we have received from our substance, given to us in nature by the goodness of God, the same virtues by the operation of mercy are given to us in grace, renewed through the Holy Spirit; and these virtues and gifts are treasured for us in Jesus Christ. For in the same time that God joined himself to our body in the maiden’s womb, he took our soul, which is sensual, and in taking it, having enclosed us all in himself, he united it to our substance. In this union he was perfect man, for Christ, having joined in himself every man who will be saved, is perfect man. So our Lady is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed and born of her in Christ, for she who is mother of our saviour is mother of all who are saved in our saviour; and our saviour is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come. (Ch 57)

From Mary, Christ received his human nature, which he unites fully with his divine nature, thereby restoring it to its natural condition. And so, in becoming Christ’s mother, Mary becomes the mother of all of us who are united in him. Whenever I think about Mary and her traditional role in the Christian imagination, I’m reminded of the strange confusion of persons and pronouns in John’s Gospel:

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17.20-23)

In a similar way, we are born in Mary as we are born in Christ whom she bore, yet we also, like her, bear Christ inside of us. This symbolic language (and we must remember it is symbolic language — what got Meister Eckhart into trouble a century before Julian was that he seemingly took the language of bearing Christ within us too literally) testifies to our interconnectedness, both with God as we participate in the divine perichoresis but also with one another.

And so today, we remember the miracle and gift of the Incarnation, in which God humbly took on human nature. This was accomplished through the beautiful person of Mary, who remains a symbol of our union with God and our bearing God within us.


* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.

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