Saint Mary’s Heaton Norris is graced, as I said, by some fine stained-glass windows. So far, we’ve looked at the three situated at the far east end of the church, which were already in place when the church opened in 1897.
Either side of the sanctuary stands a side altar – and each of these has a window, installed a couple of years after opening, in 1899. On the left, over Our Lady’s altar is a window depicting the Annunciation, and this is the one we’ll look at today.
The Annunciation is described in Luke 1,26-38. An archangel is sent by God to a young woman named Mary, who lives in the Galilean town of Nazareth. This young woman is engaged – though not yet married. The angel greets her with the words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”
Mary is troubled by the angel’s salutation. Telling her not to be afraid, the angel announces that Mary has found favour with God, and will conceive a child. This child will be Son of God – a new and greater King David, whose rule will never come to an end.
Although Mary doesn’t, of course, doubt God’s word – she does ask how all this is to come about, since as yet she has no husband. The angel explains that her promised child will be conceived not by agency of a human father, but by the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Ghost will come upon you, and the power of the Most High overshadow you”. God will save fallen Man by assuming our human nature – Mary’s child will be God the Son made Man. This is the Mystery of the Incarnation.
A passage I’ve always loved from the Legion of Mary handbook explains that, through the archangel, God didn’t merely notify Mary of the Incarnation – rather, he proposed it to her. Man’s redemption was God’s ardent desire – yet he never forces Man’s will. In this child, God offers the priceless gift of Man’s salvation – but it is for Man to accept it, with liberty to refuse it. So, after the angel’s announcement, there’s a pause. Our Lady’s freedom of choice was never violated, and she does not accept at once. For a while, the fate of fallen Man trembles in the balance. It is the crisis of all time. Man’s Fall came about when the first woman, Eve, refused God’s will, and took the fruit he had forbidden Man to eat. God’s redemption of fallen Man comes when this young woman freely accepts his will, in those beautiful words: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word”.
Our window depicts the scene inside Mary’s home – which (as in many pictures of the Annunciation) has a Mediaeval, rather than an ancient Palestinian, look. The arches behind Our Lady and the angel open onto the world outside, revealing trees and a neighbouring house in Nazareth. It’s an event which will have worldwide consequences, yet it takes place inside, unwitnessed by anyone else – a private conversation between two creatures. Our Lady is kneeling in prayer, at what looks like a prie-dieu with an open prayer book resting on top. Below the angel we see some steps, and behind him a rail with a curtain hanging from it – almost as if there’s a church side altar there. This may represent a little prayer corner in Mary’s home. Alternatively, it may be part of the vision: an altar is a bridge between this world and God – signifying that this archangel and his message is a bridge between Mary, representing Man’s hope, and the God who sent the archangel to her.
Angels are purely spiritual creatures, without visible or tangible bodies. They can, however, take on a visible appearance: in the book of Tobit, for example, the archangel Raphael took on the form of a human traveller to guide and assist Tobias; or, when angels appeared to the prophet Isaiah, they did so as creatures with wings (Isaiah 6,2-3). We aren’t told what the archangel looked like at the Annunciation – but he appears in our window with wings, and hovering over the ground rather than standing on it. There’s a brief time of year when the rising sun is in a position to shine directly through that window for ten minutes or so, producing a curious effect. It projects an image of the archangel onto the wall alongside the statue of Our Lady we have just below this window, as if appearing to her. But because the sun is still low in the sky, its beam is weak and shimmering, lending the angel an ethereal look appropriate to a spiritual being. The Bible tells us this angel’s name was Gabriel. ‘Gabriel’ means “the strength of God”. It was appropriate, wrote Pope Gregory the Great, that he who was to come as the God of strength and mighty in battle, to put down the spiritual powers of evil, was announced by an angel named Gabriel, “the strength of God”.
In our window, Our Lady is pure white. Her child was to be conceived, as we said, not by the seed of fallen man, but by the power of the Holy Spirit – a completely fresh start. In other words, Mary was to be the Virgin Mother of God, and her pure whiteness signifies her virgin purity – as do the white lilies in the pot on the steps just in front of the angel.
Eve, the first woman, raised her head to look with craving at the forbidden fruit, and lifted up her arms to pluck it to herself. This is the gesture of Man’s arrogant boldness in defiance of God’s command, and it led to our Fall. What a contrast Mary shows us in this beautiful window! Her head is not raised but bowed, and her arms are not reaching out to seize but folded across her breast. Mary’s is a gesture of supreme humility before the will of God, so she becomes Mother not of fallen Man, but of Man’s Redeemer.
Above Our Lady’s head flies a dove with a halo round its head – signifying the Holy Ghost (who appeared as a dove at Our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan, Matthew 3,16). A beam from the dove onto Mary’s bowed head represents the power of the Most High overshadowing her – and so, having given her humble consent, Mary now conceives Our Blessed Saviour.
Finally, people who have seen angels often speak of how enormous they are, and in our window Our Lady at first appears tiny beside Gabriel. Yet, it is Mary, rather than the angel, who arrests our attention – for Mary’s humility renders her a spiritual giant.
Our other side altar also has its window, which we’ll look at in the next day or so.