This year Palm Sunday falls on March 25th, the traditional date of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas. On this day we remember that the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was full of grace and would bear the Son of the Most High.[i] And so, the Solemnity of the Annunciation will be celebrated instead on Monday April 9th, the first available date after focusing our attention Jesus passion, death and resurrection during Holy week and the Octave of Easter.
Although Mary rejoices in directing attention away from herself to her Son, I do not want to lose sight of her powerful ‘fiat’.[ii] As we leave behind the feasts of Easter and our routines crowd back into our field of view, we might lose sight of the Annunciation in the same way that our favourite mountain peak, glimpsed on a cloudless day, is hidden when overcasting clouds roll in.
Training our eyes to see what lies above is a powerful theme in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The free people of Middle Earth struggle to keep their eyes on hope, often using objects or lore taught them by the Elves from the undying lands. They cling to the light with heart-breaking courage when the shadows cast by the Towers and mountains of Mordor are darkest.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.[iii]
When we ask for the theological virtue of hope in the Rosary, we say we are “relying on your almighty power and infinite mercy and promises.”[iv] But can we imagine what that might look like? The hope that keeps despair at bay under the cloud cover of everyday life can be grasped more tightly when captured, incarnated, in story. If we nourish our hearts with stories of grace, our eyes are more easily fixed on hope. We can take whatever part God has assigned to us in His battle for our Middle Earth, between the abyss and the realm of the blessed, even when the sky is lowering and the war seems never ending.
In Return of the King, Tolkien marks the traditional date of the Annunciation as the beginning of a new age. Gandalf explains to Sam and Frodo:
But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King.[v]
Just before the tower fell and the mountain crumbled in fire, the hobbits’ dearest friends were in a desperate battle: “the onslaught of Mordor broke like a wave on the beleaguered hills, voices roaring like a tide amid the wreck and crash of arms.”[vi] The hobbits themselves will have to scour and heal their beloved Shire in the days ahead. But in these battles their trust in ‘almighty power and infinite mercy’ is heartened by remembering that the Dark Lord had been defeated on March 25th.
When the Solemnity of the Annunciation comes, seemingly hemmed in by routine, let its beauty smite our hearts and let our hearts share in Mary’s praise of our God. Her fiat began the end of our slavery just as surely as the destruction of the ring began the liberation of Middle Earth. In these last days of Lent, let’s find ways to prepare to celebrate the victory of the Resurrection so that we may live each day in hope. For we know that the Annunciation heralds the Return of the King.
[i] Luke 1:26-38.
[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, #973: “By pronouncing her “fiat” at the Annunciation and giving her consent to the Incarnation, Mary was already collaborating with the whole work her Son was to accomplish. She is mother wherever he is Saviour and head of the Mystical Body.”
[iii] J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Book 6, Ch. 2, “The Land of Shadow,” Kindle Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 922.
[iv] James Socias, Handbook of Prayers, Kindle Edition (Woodridge Illinois: Midwest Theological Forum, Seventh Edition 2011), Act of Hope.
[v] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Book 6, Ch. 4, “The Field of Cormallen,” 952.
[vi] Ibid., 948.