Today we celebrated the Solemnity of the Annunciation, liturgically transferred from March 25 this year because Holy Week and the Octave of Easter take precedence over any other feast.
I love the art of the Annunciation, from its earliest Byzantine expressions through the many beautiful and thought-provoking contemporary depictions of the angelic greeting to Mary. It’s only right that this moment when the Word becomes flesh has inspired so much iconography. I usually celebrate this solemnity here by reviewing some of my favorites, but this year the shift to post-Easter, and the coincidence of the artwork chosen to illustrate April on the liturgical calendar distributed by my parish, leads me in another direction.
That calendar hangs on my kitchen wall, and when I glanced at it from afar the other day my nearsighted gaze confused the scene being depicted with an Annunciation. (Squint at the above; see what I mean?) A minute later it dawned on me that it was, instead, a kind of art piece known as Noli me tangere (literally, “Don’t cling to me”) from Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene during their post-Resurrection encounter in the garden, as told in John’s Gospel. Like the Annunciation, this encounter has always been a particular favorite of artists—especially the Mannerist painters who loved depicting it with exaggerated poses and dramatic colors. It’s a favorite artistic encounter of mine, too, but until this year I never noticed or stopped to reflect on the similarities between the angel’s annunciation to Mary and Christ’s commissioning of Mary Magdalene, not only artistically but also spiritually.
There is the certain similarity of positions, although in the Annunciation it is Mary of Nazareth who turns away while the angel my kneel before her, and in the Noli me tangere Mary of Magdala falls to her knees while the Risen Christ turns slightly away. There is the tradition that both encounters occur in a garden—the walled garden (or closed room, with a garden visible beyond) of Mary’s virginity, the burial garden in which the Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener—with its echoes of the reversal of the Expulsion from Paradise. Both begin with a greeting that overcomes fear, and both conclude with immediate evangelical action: Mary of Nazareth hastes to the hill country to be with her kinswoman, Elizabeth; Mary of Magdala speeds to her brothers with the good news.
There are other resonances that act like open and close parentheses. Mary of Nazareth wonders how she can be with child without ever having known the embrace of the flesh; the Risen Christ refuses Mary of Magdala’s fleshy embrace. (Neither is meant as a rejection of the embodied love by which God blesses marriages and families, but a signal that Something New, Something Other is happening here.) A filled womb, an empty tomb. The first time we hear of Mary of Nazareth in the scriptural story of Jesus; the last time we hear of Mary of Magdala.
Finally, there is the fact that both these annunciations mark a conception, in a way I never really saw until my blurry eyes made a diptych. By this I absolutely do not mean the silliness of the tradition (much older than Dan Brown) that Mary Magdalene was Mrs Jesus, and that they conceived a child. I have nothing against the idea in theory, and indeed it’s hard to imagine that a faithful Jewish man of Jesus’ time was not married. But the notion that this union (a mystery protected, supposedly, by both the institutional Church and a loose collection of secret societies, feminists, and pseudo-Gnostics, an arcane code that makes the Magdalene’s womb the equivalent of the Holy Grail) resulted in . . . yawn . . . the foundation of the Merovingian royal dynasty? Nuh uh.
No, the conception I mean is the one we all receive in our encounter with the Risen Christ in Baptism: the Word made flesh in our own lives, the call to make haste and bring the Good News. When we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation, when we hear the Easter reading from John’s Gospel, we are reminded. Get up! Don’t fear! Don’t cling to what was! Something New, Something Other is being born—now, today, in us.
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