As we round out a full year since the beginning of the lockdown, we do well to consider the many aspects of “health”: the physical, of course, but also the emotional, the psychological, and the spiritual. This is particularly true in the case of children. School is so much more than simply learning to read and write; indeed, it is where the human being, the “social animal,” takes his or her first steps into the world beyond the family. These initial interactions had better be positive ones, because a lot is riding on them. A 19th-century teacher named Friedrich Froebel developed a set of ideas about early education, holding that nature enables children to grow on all levels, especially through sensory experience, tactility, games, making things, and cooperating with others. Formal education is, by comparison, secondary to the serious business of play. This God-given (can you imagine using that term at a school board meeting today?) dynamism develops through a series of stages that cannot be rushed, lest children, whom he compares to flowers in a garden, become stunted. Even if you have never heard of Froebel before, you know his work; he is the father of the kindergarten (“children’s garden”).
It is somewhat paradoxical that Catholics normally celebrate the Annunciation just before the events of Holy Week. The first moment of the mystery of the Incarnation is followed almost immediately by the final days of Our Lord’s earthly life. And yet the process by which Jesus’ divine nature manifests itself in time goes hand in hand with the gradual “unfolding” of his true and perfect manhood. The saints even say that Jesus is, from our perspective, the flowering of the human race, and from God’s, the divine made visible.
This week’s artwork is the spectacular “Cestello Annunciation” of Sandro Botticelli, painted in 1490. Dr. James Romaine points out several of the exquisite features of this masterpiece, which was created to adorn an altar in the chapel of a Cistercian convent. He suggests that the work is an attempt to express what it looks like to be overshadowed by the power of God. Botticelli achieves this through the posture and position of the characters. The door separates the room into two sections, one symbolizing the grace of God speaking through his messenger, the other, humanity as it is about to catch fire with divine love. In the middle, Romaine continues, the open hands of Gabriel and Mary frame a space that is “charged”: the meeting between heaven and earth. Still, the most impressive element is the marvelous turning of the Virgin’s body. This movement conveys both a sense of awe at the dignity she is about to assume, and her tense awareness of what this will demand from her. As the Blessed Mother’s body fans out like the petals of a delicate rose, so does her soul burst into bloom. A deeply Catholic work of art, the Cestello Annunciation reminds us that the body is neither a stranger nor adversary to the spirit, but rather the environment in which grace invisibly works its way in human life.
Let us pray that, by the grace of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, our own souls will come to full flourishing.