1 May 2021

The Mary Month of May. She feared the light.

So reads a responsory which, in the Liturgia Horarum, comes after the first reading of the Office of Readings on March 25. 

Why did our Lady fear the light? Where does the detail come from?

The responsory was taken over from the old Breviary, so we don't have to wonder about on what grounds to criticise Bugnini & Co.. I tried the Protevangelium Iacobi, in case it has its origin in an apocryphal source, but no luck there.

The Latin has "expavescit de lumine" - which isn't quite the same. But what is the point, anyway, of this vivid little detail?

Could it be to provide a narrative reason as to exactly why our Lady was afeared? Perhaps it originated in a culture in which Angels did not (yet?) have the iconographical convention of big give-away wings, and so Light (rather than feathers) was how their presence was known.

In C S Lewis's interplanetary novels, the Oyeresu are described as manifesting themselves as pulses, scarcely perceptible rods, of light.

One of Lewis's motives in writing his interplanetary romances was to rescue Christianity from Religion (a point which, I think, Rowan Williams makes). Perhaps he felt that Angels, in particular, need to be rescued from the culture of the Primary School Nativity Play and the Victorian church window.

And perhaps, during this Mary Month of May, we might wonder if the Theotokos, also, needs to be rescued from Religion so that an apostate world can see her in her great might as a mega thauma, and wonder at her Immaculate Heart, and tremble?


Atticus said...

On this day laud we Mary most blest,
She who nurtured the Spring at her breast.
Ne'er let any reproach her;
With the Lincolnshire Poacher
MAY the birdies' Te Deums be addressed.

frjustin said...

In the traditional Cistercian rite, this same responsory is sung after the "Capitulum" for First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent, with the same wording: "expavescit Virgo de lumine". It is still sung then, in the English translation: "the Virgin trembled at the light".

John Vasc said...

At first sight it seems the Evangelist is far more reticent about the Angel's entrance ('ingressus angelus') and Our Lady's reaction to his greeting: 'quae cum vidisset turbata est in sermone eius'. Not at all equivalent to 'expavescit'. (Luke 1:29)
The Greek Septuagint has the same as the Latin: εἰσελθὼν ὁ ἄγγελος(the angel entered)... ἡ δὲ ἰδοῦσα διεταράχθη ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ αὐτοῦ - ('and when she saw him she was troubled at his words').
But the poetic medieval mind might well have devoutly dramatized the scene, underlining the luminous appearance of the angel, and the Virgin's more extreme reaction.

John Patrick said...

I think of fear here in the sense of holy fear i.e. "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps 111). To me that makes sense that our blessed Mother would fear the light as she must have known it was from God.

Banshee said...

St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this detail in Summa Theologiae III, 30, Article 3:

3. Praeterea, corporalis visio spiritualis substantiae videntes stupefacit, unde etiam de ipsa virgine cantatur, et expavescit virgo de lumine. Sed melius fuisset quod a tali turbatione mens eius esset praeservata. Non ergo fuit conveniens quod huiusmodi Annuntiatio fieret per visionem corporalem.

Sed contra est quod Augustinus, in quodam sermone, inducit beatam virginem sic dicentem, venit ad me Gabriel Archangelus facie rutilans, veste coruscans, incessu mirabilis. Sed haec non possunt pertinere nisi ad corpoream visionem. Ergo corporea visione Angelus annuntians beatae virgini apparuit.

And a bunch more. He goes on quite a ways, trying to argue out if the angel was seen physically by the eyes, or spiritually only.