Arguments for Easter: An ordinary woman sitting among her furniture

This year, unusually, the feast of the Annunciation falls in Holy Week. The coincidence illuminates a key paradox about incarnation and death, argues Margaret Atkins.
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The Independent Online
Fernand Braudel's book The Structures of Everyday Life tells the stories of the things we forget to notice. He considers how the most basic ingredients have shaped our civilisations: maize, potatoes or rice; the walls and furnishings of our buildings; coinage and trade-routes. He exploits a rich selection of illustrations to illuminate shadowy corners of his history. In the section on "houses, clothes and fashion", Braudel reproduces a painting of the Annunciation. Mary, clad soberly, is greeted by an angel with sweeping velvet gown and fine Renaissance wings. The author comments: "a bourgeois interior, southern Germany, in the 15th century".

Braudel has looked past the Blessed Virgin and seen the furniture. Contrast the words that Fra Angelico wrote at the base of his fine fresco of the same scene: "When you come before the figure of the ever-virgin, take care as you go past that your greeting is not silent." The passer-by is drawn into the centre of the mystery of human existence: here and now, in this woman seated before you, God assumed human flesh.

Mary is an ordinary woman, sitting in a typical room that can reveal to the perceptive historian the neglected structures of late medieval society. Or again, Mary is the theotokos, the Mother of God, she through whom creation was made new and humanity reconciled with God. Are we to choose between the two stories?

This year, unusually, the traditional date for the Annunciation, 25 March, falls within Holy Week. This offers us an opportunity to meditate on the relation between beginning and end, between the conception of Christ and his death. For the incarnate Son of God lived his humanity "even unto death, death on a cross" (Philippians ii.8). The story of the incarnation is throughout steeped in paradox: the sustainer of the universe was nurtured at his mother's breast; the author of life was slain.

Braudel is right. Because he who was God became fully human, he submitted himself to the structures of everyday life. St Luke emphasised the context of ordinary Jewish piety in which Mary lived. Her unconditional "yes" to the will of God was prefigured by that of her cousins Elizabeth and Zachariah. The angel who comes to announce the birth of John the Baptist interrupts the latter in the course of his regular priestly duties. And when the baby is presented in the Temple we encounter the elderly Simeon and Anna, whose years of steadfast devotion are rewarded by a glimpse of their Messiah. This was the spiritual furniture of Mary's life: patient and humble prayer, without ostentation.

As a result, the Son of God too inhabited the structures of everyday life. He was dependent upon the agricultural economy of Palestine, its olives, its corn and its sheep. He was subject to the God-given commandments of his people, and the man-made authority of the Roman empire. He too breathed the air of Jewish piety, and prayed in the inherited language of the Psalms. He too submitted to the basic laws of biology: he hungered, he thirsted, he grew weary, he wept. And inevitably, inexorably, he too came to share our fate of death. There was no compromise with the limitations of human existence.

And yet, Fra Angelico was also right. For the subsequent resurrection was simply the completion of the work begun in Mary's womb. It was through his humanity, through his sharing in Mary's flesh, that Christ restored life to the human race. The ordinary girl from Galilee was indeed the mother of God.

What does all this mean for the structures of our everyday life? Our world is undergirded by a truth lying deeper than Braudel's patterns - the fact of the incarnation. God dwelt within his own creation in order to reconcile it to himself. The extraordinary has become ordinary; nature has been saturated with grace. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins compared the Blessed Virgin to "the air that we breathe". The basic, vital, element of his existence was the mercy granted through Mary's motherhood, by the life, death and resurrection of her son.

Such are the structures of the Christian's everyday life. Like a sharp- eyed historian, we do well when we remember the furniture.