“Hail, thou that art highly favoured!”
In the Christian calendar, we are nine months from Christmas, and today is the Feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As we are ‘The College of the Blessed Mary of Winchester’, it is right that we mark the day. The event is recorded in the Gospel according to St Luke, chapter 1, verses 26-38. It also appears in the Quran. The Archangel Gabriel announces to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus.
The Annunciation is the most beautiful story in Scripture, and arguably the most important one, for in it is contained the DNA of Christianity. It is through Mary, a girl of no more than 16, that the Incarnation takes place. The salvation of the entire cosmos is vested in the ‘yes’ of a young Palestinian girl. The foolhardiness of that divine project is surely the wonderful scandal of the Christian faith.
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
It is one of the most popular subjects for artists and writers, particularly of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Winchester has its own Annunciation. The early-eighteenth-century painting by the French artist, François Lemoyne, is currently on loan to the National Gallery. Commissioned by the then headmaster, from 1729 it hung as the centrepiece of the Chapel.
Edwin Muir's poem rather beautifully contrasts the vastness of the Annunciation with its intimacy.
The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.
There seem to be several stages to the Annunciation that speak to the crisis we currently find ourselves in.
It starts with, “Do not be afraid!” We are met, often in times of fearful crisis; liminal moments; moments when we wouldn’t expect to encounter transcendence; dark moments; moments when we are very afraid. And suddenly we know that we have nothing to fear.
It proceeds with, “You have found favour.” We are chosen. We have not chosen, but we have been chosen.
And then the mission impossible follows: “And now, you will conceive … and bear …” A plan is annunciated for us; a mission is imparted; a call to bear that transcendence into the world; to incarnate it into the places where we live and move and have our being.
And the next voice is invariably ours: “How can this be?” Mary’s reply is all too familiar. You’ve got the wrong guy – or girl! You must be mistaking me for someone else! Doubt and fear.
And next? “Nothing will be impossible.” We are equipped to bear all this, despite our doubts and fears.
And the final stage is agreement to partnership: “Let it be.” Let us sign up to this craziness, for all will be well in the end.
26th June 2020
There is always something to celebrate at Winchester College and the last couple of years have been particularly full of significant anniversaries - the opening of the boarding houses and the conversion of Commoners into classrooms - and this summer sees the 150th anniversary of the opening of Moberly Library.
8th June 2020
English don, Richard Stillman reflects on the protests sweeping the United States and United Kingdom, what we might do to educate ourselves, and how this might help make a difference.
1st June 2020
Two brothers write of their experiences of lockdown together, with one studying for exams, and the other continuing his singing, remotely.
1st June 2020
In our latest Thought for the Week, Dr Jamie Barron notes that the COVID-19 crisis has brought scientists into the spotlight, but that science by its nature sits uncomfortably with the world of the sound-bite.
31st May 2020
Quiristers have been singing at Winchester College since 1394. The current situation could not be allowed to disrupt that tradition. Therefore online rehearsals and recording individual voices remotely have become the new ways of keeping the sound of Chapel Choir with us.
21st May 2020
Looking ahead to the next Treasury exhibition, Dr Griffin considers the work of Sir Thomas Browne (OW), a physician renowned for his close observation of nature.