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An Inspirational Event
“An educated person … must know what the Annunciation is, to know what is depicted in some of the greatest paintings and icons made by the hand of man” (David Warren).

Four weeks into the 40 days of Lent and we — Roman Catholics and most other Christians working from the western or Gregorian calendar — have something to celebrate. It is called the Annunciation of Mary; it is set, naturally, on the date nine months prior to Christmas.

The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci (1472-1475) Uffizi Gallery.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

I do not write these columns only for Catholics and Christians, but neither do I apologize for calling some occasional attention to the procession of feasts and fasts. Like the Gregorian calendar itself, proclaimed by a pope in 1582, which is today the international civil calendar, these events persist in the background of our culture. An educated person, no matter what his religion, must know what the Annunciation is, to know what is depicted in some of the greatest paintings and icons made by the hand of man. Enter that word “Annunciation” in a Google search, then hit “images” to see this.

It may be discouraging at first to realize that these paintings and icons are mostly products of a distant past. We have lost the ability to produce such things. We have not lost the subject matter, for I have seen several paintings by living contemporaries that depict the angel announcing to Mary, either in a curiously abstracted way, or as folk art. I recall one such, by a Haitian artist, presented casually to tourists, that was strikingly vivid and moving; I regret to this day I did not buy it. The ability to see, to draw, to manipulate imagery, to convey faith and in the broadest sense cast light, is never lost, so long as we remain human.

Yet we have lost, for a time — a time that could consume centuries for all we know — the civilizational force by which everything we are, and everything we believe, and everything we hope, can be concentrated in the moment at the tip of a brush, held by a Leonardo.

In the post-Christian, post religious, post-modern culture we now have instead, there are no themes that do not disintegrate into glibness. Only the very naïve — as that Haitian painter, some “mute inglorious Milton” whose name I never learned — can escape the acids that dissolve nobility of gesture.

Which is no argument — no argument at all — for ceasing to aspire, upward. Life itself, from its beginnings on this planet, was formed with the volition to resist the physical laws that govern the movement of all dead matter. Every plant grows in defiance of gravity; and as humans we stand upon two legs.

Moreover, we know by now, because we are in possession of history, that things can get better as well as worse. And we know, from the passage of the seasons in our fair North, that underneath the ice the flowers prepare to bloom. It is foolish to give up hope, though also foolish to hope shallowly, for the wrong things.

My readers will already know that I am about as “prolife” as they come, at least in the mainstream media. It is a position that can be rationally resolved into a hierarchical chart of ethical propositions, premised on the sanctity of human life, and extending to a reverence for life in general.

It should be needless to add that, in contemplating the Annunciation to Mary, we are looking at those same ethical principles exalted in a mystical way — and I do not mean “mystical” in the sense of “mystifying.” Here is a woman being told of her pregnancy, by a divine messenger, heralding the Saviour of our world. To which she answers with a “Yes” that resounds through time and space.

To a mind capable of contemplation, here is where the notion that “God made man in His own image” is turned inside out, and God will make Himself in the image of a man. The Church doctrines that follow from this original event (the virgin birth, and so on) are themselves the product of a whole civilization trying to think things through, “faithfully,” as it were. For even in ancient times, people, including Christian believers, knew perfectly well that virgins don’t give birth, and that their doctrine must fly in the face of experience.

The thinking through of just such things — the thinking through all implications, philosophically and theologically — is not incidental to the rise of western civilization. It is in our very roots.

Likewise the music. For Mary replies to the angel, in the Gospel of Luke, with the words that form a hymn, called the Magnificat. These are among the most riveting words in any language, and have been translated into all, and set, through the centuries, by our greatest composers. As life itself, this “Yes” has risen, out of the mud of our primordial materialism.

David Warren is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

Originally published in and copyrighted by the Ottawa Citizen, March 25, 2009.




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