In Catholic countries, before the year 1000, it was a pious custom for the layfolk to recite three Hail Marys to honor Our Lady in her singularly exalted role as the Mother of God. This was done towards evening, usually as the bell rang when religious in local monasteries were chanting that part of the Divine Office called Compline. Through the years this practice was expanded to include a morning recitation, then another at noon. Later, holy details from the scene of the Annunciation—during which moment the Incarnation took place—were inserted before and after the Hail Marys, and a closing prayer was attached. Named after the first word of its Latin form, this devotion is the prayer we now call the Angelus. To say it is to replay the drama of the Annunciation once more, placing it vividly before our eyes and within our hearts.
An Appreciation . . .
In some sense, just as a little child must first feel assured that those possessions he is fondest of will be duly appreciated, before he will agree to share them with another, so God often acts with us about revealing what is especially precious to Him.
It might surprise us to know that one of these divine valuables is names, and even a short perusal of Holy Scripture lends abundant proof of it. Time and again we come across sacred events whose participants bear names not merely of supernatural meaning, but of direct celestial origin. Few concepts are more familiar or human to us than a name, and God often takes advantage of this by inserting “mystical” names into events as a simple yet effective means of awakening in souls a healthy fear of Him—or a fearless love of Him.
Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and His name shall be called Emmanuel. (Isaias 7: 14)
Seven hundred years after its utterance, this prophecy of the holy Isaias came to pass. Emmanuel—God with us. Was anything ever revealed to fill our hearts with greater delight? Never has God so outdone Himself in forming a name of such exquisite appropriateness; never was there a single word so perfectly self-contained in meaning and implication. We yearned with a great yearning for the coming of our Emmanuel, for the time when God would be with us indeed, walking His earth. And, in ardent response on His part, God desired with desire to hasten the time of this prophecy’s fulfillment, the first sublime step being the accomplishment of this Divine conception so longed-for, in that moment we call the Incarnation—when God became Man.
V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived of the Holy Ghost.
With disarming simplicity the very essence of the Annunciation is given to us by these opening lines of the Angelus. However, if we desire to understand both this event and the Angelus more fully, it is necessary to turn with equal simplicity and childlike trust to what is termed the “Deposit of Faith.” It contains all the beliefs of the Catholic Church, consisting, as it does, of Church tradition and Holy Scripture—in this particular instance the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke. To the Depositum Fidei, then, let us turn indeed, and now think back:
It is 3:00 on the afternoon of March twenty-fifth; it is a Friday. Taking on the appearance of a man, the Archangel Gabriel, whose name means Strength of God, leaves heaven for earth; he has a divine proposal to deliver—and a reply to receive. His destination? A certain little house on a quiet street in the tiny Galilean town of Nazareth, for there she lives, whose coming God has anticipated from all eternity. She has ravished the Heart of God with her love for Him and her humility before Him, and in her we find the only perfect source of consolation that God has reserved for Himself on earth-the only perfect refuge of comfort He has allowed Himself. Having remained faultless of any offence against God—never by one thought, word or deed did she fail to measure up to the supreme and consummate perfection of a creature conformed to the Will of God—her purity and sinlessness is beyond utterance. Her vocation was so select and sublime and divine that He created her soul free from Original Sin, the sin of Adam. Thus at this moment her glorious title is that of the Immaculate Conception—but, kneeling in prayer, she is soon to be offered another…
“And the angel being come in, said unto her: ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a Son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus.’ ”
The Virgin of virgins asks, “How shall this be done, because I know not man?”
“And the angel answering said to her: ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ ”
Having thus made known to her His desire-and only after receiving her sweet and meek consent:
“V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord:
R. Be it done to me according to thy word.”—did God effect an event greater than that of the creation of the universe and the dawn of time. For within the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived a God-Man—the Savior of the human race.
V. And the Word was made flesh,
R. And dwelt among us.
Lo! Eternity and time have met, the Word has been made flesh! The Lord has become Our Lord—Jesus Christ. This holiest of names, Jesus, means Savior, Christ means the Anointed One; and now indeed the Redemption of the world is at hand. Oh, can we not feel the very trembling of the angels? It is the Incarnation that has finally come to pass! Although 1981 years old, It is a Beauty ever new. Jesus said: “Abraham rejoiced that he might see My day;”—even the holy ones of the Old Law may now rest, satiated—”he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56) Emmanuel—God—is with us, and He shall not be taken away.
Now may we say:
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
To restless human eyes, the significance of this Event of all events, revealed by God in such simplicity, can appear stripped of any great importance; thus in most hearts it endures a painful lack of appreciation, especially in these days. But our Holy Mother the Church, being a mother indeed, will not have us to be ungrateful children. Knowing well our forgetful tendencies, in the Angelus she has provided a means of keeping alive within us that awe and wonder properly due to the mystery of the Incarnation.
A Method . . .
The Angelus should be recited three times a day: as early in the morning as possible (at 6:00 a.m., or upon awakening), again at noon, and once more at 6:00 p.m. It may be said privately, of course, but whenever recited with others, one person leads it by saying aloud the verses and the first half of the Hail Mary—that is, until “blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” The others make the responses and say the second part of the Hail Mary;—then all join in to say the closing prayer. For the sake of uniformity, where the faithful may not be gathered together in one place, the traditional practice has the Angelus said to the stroke of a bell—three rings for each verse, response, and Hail Mary; then nine more throughout the final prayer—eighteen strokes in all.
Numberless are the saints who were born or who died, by the providence of God, “as the Angelus was sounding” from the town bell or from local Church and monastery steeples. Thus was a holy future often prophesied, or a life of heroic sanctity confirmed, by Him who is pleased to reveal, as He sees fit, those souls whose lives further the effect of that Incarnation so admirably honored in the Angelus.
There is not a saint to be named, of recent centuries, who did not claim devotion to the Angelus. To name but one, Saint Germaine Cousin. The little shepherdess of Pibrac in France, would drop to her knees in prayer upon hearing the Angelus ring—even while crossing a stream.
And the bells themselves are greatly reverenced. Many are preserved, even from before the Middle Ages, and the greater number bear inscriptions, usually in Latin, that indicate their holy employment. Often in France they read Ave Maria, and many in England honor Saint Gabriel—for example: “I am sweet as honey, and am called Gabriel’s bell,” and “Gabriel the messenger bears joyous tidings to holy Mary.”
Through the Annunciation came the Incarnation; by the Incarnation is Christmas brought to us. From the beginning that is Christmas we arrive at the end that is our Redemption on Calvary. Through Calvary we are given the Resurrection, then the Ascension—through which, if we save our souls, we attain the bliss of heaven and the Vision of God.
Let us pray.
Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Through the Angelus we say “Thank you” to God and His Holy Mother. And, through the Angelus, we poor pilgrims also beg the grace of strength to faithfully persevere through our exile upon earth, unto a share of eternal life in our true and lasting homeland.
A small price to pay, is it not?