Deus, aeterna maestas. cuius ineffabile Verbum,
Angelo nuntiante, Virgo immaculata suscepit,
et, domus divinitatis effecta, Sanctus Spiritus luce repletur,
quaesumus, ut nos, eius exemplo,
voluntati tuae humiliter adhaerere valeamus.
O God, Eternal Majesty,
at the announcement of the angel,
the immaculate Virgin received your ineffable Word within herself
and, having become the dwelling of the divinity,
was filled with the light of the Holy Spirit;
we beseech you, that following her example,
we may be able to adhere humbly to your will.
If we are to profit fully from today’s Collect, we have to listen to it with the ears of the heart and look closely at the images it sets before us. In addition to the Father and the Son evoked in every Collect, in today’s there are the same three persons present in Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation: the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, and the Archangel Gabriel.
Today’s prayer addresses God, as Eternal Majesty. This form of divine address is very rare in the liturgy. Why does the Church use it in her prayer today? It sets the opening of the prayer in the heights of heaven. One can only think of Isaiah’s vision in the temple: “In the year that King Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple” (Is 6:1).
The painting of the Annunciation by the Florentine Dominican Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), a convert of Savonarola, shows us the Father of Eternal Majesty blessing with His right hand while, with the other, He sends the Holy Spirit, under the form of a dove, into the house of the Virgin at Nazareth.
There can be nothing brashly familiar in our approach to the mystery. We begin the Collect today in holy amazement, in the fear of God that is a mixture of face-in-the-dust adoration and speechless awe. We describe God as we experience him: aeterna maiestas, eternal majesty. The eternal majesty of God in heaven penetrates the little house of Nazareth to reach the Virgin, ravishing in her humility.
After addressing the Father, the Collect speaks of the Son, calling him the Ineffable Word. The Inexpressible Logos. The Word that no one can utter save the Father. “No one knows who the Son is except the Father” (Lk 10:22). The Ineffable Word is uttered out of the divine silence, and sent in the fullness of time. After multiple words entrusted to the prophets comes the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning facing God” (Jn 1:2). “God who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days, hath spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2).
At the announcement of the angel. God sends his Archangel, his most worthy messenger. In this particular painting, he kneels in reverence before the Virgin full of grace. His ample garments are girded about him so as not to inhibit his mission. In one hand he holds a flowering lily, signifying the immaculate purity of the Virgin; the other hand is raised in salutation.
Virgo immaculata suscepit
The Immaculate Virgin received your ineffable Word within herself. In this image she is standing, having risen from her chair at the arrival of the angel. She is standing, just as Saint John will show her standing at the foot of the Cross. Her hand, like that of Gabriel, is raised in salutation.
The center of the painting’s composition lies between these two hands raised in salutation. Between them appears the wood of the tree. The Virgin is standing, facing the tree. Her head is inclined toward the tree as much as toward the angel. The angel and the Virgin, in greeting each other, are already greeting the saving wood of the Cross.
Implicit in the angel’s salutation is the mystery of the Cross. His Ave, gratia plena (Lk 1:28) is already a summons to Calvary. “Standing by the cross of Jesus was his mother” (Jn 19:25). The Ave, gratia plena (Lk 1:28) is inseparable from that other Ave of the liturgy of September 14th: O Crux, ave, spes unica.
The dwelling of the divinity. All that was imaged in Moses’ Tent of Meeting and in Solomon’s temple is perfected in Mary. Mary is wrapped in an outer mantle as befits the tabernacle of the Lord. She is, as we say in the Litany of Loreto, the Domus aurea, the House of Gold. “And Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished” (1 K 6:21-22). In Mary, the house is finished. All is in readiness.
Sancti Spiritus luce repletur
She was filled with the light of the Holy Spirit. Here, the Collect uses an imagery other than the one found in Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation. The evangelist speaks of an overshadowing; the Collect, of an infilling light. Fra Bartolomeo has light shining into the house through the open door.
Opening the book of Exodus, we see the seven-branched lampstand of pure gold (Ex 25: 31-37). In the seven-branched candlestick tradition has always seen a symbol of the Holy Spirit with his seven gifts. Placed “on a stand, it gives light to all in the house” (Mt 5:15). The Pentecostal imagery of today’s liturgy emerges more clearly. We begin to see just why the Gospel of the Missus Est is sung to the melody of the Pentecost Gospel. Not only is the Virgin the Tabernacle of the Most High; she is the house filled with the light of the Holy Spirit.
Voluntati tuae humiliter adhaerere valeamus
After inviting us to contemplate the image of the Annunciation, the Collect places a petition on our lips: “we beseech you that, following her example, we may be able to adhere humbly to your will.” The Annunciation to the Virgin of Nazareth is the image of the annunciations that fill your lives and mine.
We are, all of us, visited by angels, messengers from God. At the center of our lives, as at the very center of the icon of the Annunciation, there is the saving wood of the Cross. Every Ave, Maria obliges to pronounce that other Ave, the one addressed to the Cross, our only hope: O Crux, ave, spes unica. The Virgin full of grace is given us to teach us the Ave to the Cross. She teaches us to say it not with the lips so much as by a humble adhesion to the will of God. This is the grace of the Missus Est. This is the grace that descends from heaven in every Eucharist, the grace held out to us in life’s many secret annunciations. “Some,” says the Letter to the Hebrews,” have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).