The annunciation of the Angel to Mary

8. A Sermon Preached in Vinegia on the Tuesday after Passion Sunday in 1539 which was the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary

By Bernardino Ochino da Siena

Translated by Patrick Colbourne OFM Cap

Translator’s note: This translation is based on the introduction, text and footnotes which were published by P. Costanzo Cargnoni O.F.M. Cap. in I Frati Cappuccini: Documenti e testimonianze dell primo secolo, Edizioni Frate Indovino, Perugia, vol III/1, pp.2192-2202. The only additions to the notes made by the translator are references to Francis of Assisi: The Early Documents, edited by Regis Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, O.F.M. and William J. Short O.F.M. Conv., New York City Press, New York, London, Manila, for an English version of quotations from the Writings or Biographies of St Francis.

Introduction by Costanzo Cargnoni OFM Cap

The subject of this very beautiful sermon is the Angel’s announcement of the Incarnation of the Word in Mary. Ochino explains that this is a great mystery that only the Holy Spirit can unveil: a mystery that was gradually revealed by means of an ongoing revelation in the Old and New Testaments.

The Incarnation was necessary and appropriate for various theological reasons that are explained here with proficiency and simplicity. It was appropriate because of the fact that in this mystery God demonstrated his omnipotence, justice and divine love. God’s long silence before sending his Son into the world was the best lesson for our pride. An angel could not have done what the Word did in bestowing so many gifts. The sermon centres around a beautiful meditation on the annunciation of the Angel to Mary and ends with the ecstatic humility of the Virgin Mother of God.

8. A Sermon Preached in Vinegia on the Tuesday after Passion Sunday in 1539 which was the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin March[1]

5688 Our mind is always seeking to know and to understand things. The more secret they are, the more it wants to understand them and the loftier they are, the more it desires to know and savour them. The Incarnation of the Word in which the Son of God became man is amongst the astonishing things that God has done. This mystery is so lofty that our inadequacy cannot reach it. Immo when thinking about this St John the Baptist said: Cuius non sum dignus corrigiam calciamenti solvere.[2]

When the angel announced the sacrament of the Incarnation of the Son of God to the Virgin Mary she was filled with wonder and said: Quomodo fiet istud? I could not attain such heights. The angel replied: Spiritus Sanctus superveniet in te.[3] The Angel did not say: “I will show you.” He was unable to show her such lofty things. He said that the Holy Spirit will come to you with glowing love and breathe on you with his breath so that you will understand such a great thing.

5689 Thus, if a greater teacher, an instructor who was better than an angel was needed to announce the Incarnation of the Son of God and to proclaim that he was to become man and take flesh, do you think that I would be capable of explaining it to you, or make you understand this great treasure? However, I will do the best that I can to speak about this indescribable, incomprehensible, inexplicable sacrament which we do not understand with our mental powers, but rather with living faith and the eye of the heart,[4] so as to go beyond our intellect.

Then let us say that Christ took flesh for us today. Oh what a happy day, Oh what a glorious day, and it all took place for us! We should all rejoice. Great happiness should break forth in our human hearts because on this day heaven’s cascades were poured over us. This is the day when the Eternal Father chose to make peace with the human race. This is the day when Christ’s pure soul was created, and (according to many holy men) the divine soul was joined to the body and to the most pure blood of Mary’s heart so that she could love him more. This is the day on which God showed his mercy to us by giving us the greatest gift he could have given, namely, his only Son. This is the day when he showed us his infinite generosity by making us sharers in all the heavenly graces. Ultimately this is the day when he opened heaven to us and allowed us to plunder and pillage it because he loved us more than we love ourselves.

Therefore, because I want to speak about the unfathomable and infinite mystery that God gave his Son to us creatures to pay for our sins, the mystery from which we derive all the fruits and graces that come with it, I ask you to favour me with a little silence and we shall begin.

5690 Oh what a great mystery is the Incarnation of the Word! Oh happy soul for whom the Son of God came! God showed some light to our first parents, a sparkle of love, but it was not as perfect as what he did later when he showed us the Incarnation of the Word. What he showed at that time was veiled and by means of a figure. What he showed us was clear and plain to see.

He foretold this mystery to the prophets, but they did not have the grace to see it visibly. He told Abraham that the Messiah would be born from him and said: In semine tuo benedicentur omnes gentes.[5] He said more to Jacob when he announced from which tribe he would be born: Non auferetur sceptrum de Iuda et dux de femore eius etc.[6] He gave more details to David indicating from what family he would come: De fructu ventris tui ponam super sedem tuam.[7] He then said a little bit more to Isaiah so that he could foretell from whom he would be born: Ecce virgo concepiet etc.[8] In addition, he said that he would have the sweet name Jesus which means Saviour. Micah foretold the place: Et in Bethleem terra Iuda etc.[9] Daniel speaks about sixty-two weeks.[10] Seeing that he should be born in humble and poor circumstances, Isaiah says: Gnerationem eius quis enarrabit? [11] Who could describe his generosity in submitting to such self-emptying; even if some say that this only applies to his being generated from eternity?

However, he showed us more clearly, not by means of symbols, or in prophesies, but in person, that he had come to redeem us from eternal death,[12] when he suffered for thirty three years to pay back our debt and ultimately shed his own blood to wash away our sins. In the end he accepted death to give us heaven and make us God’s children. He has so much love and ardent charity for creatures that he would not have only suffered one death but would have allowed himself to be put on the cross a thousand times, not only I say to save so many souls but to save just one soul. He would have undergone a thousand deaths to save a single soul. Indeed, he would have accepted a thousand deaths a day to put you back onto his heavenly Father’s lap.

5691 Now tell me, was the Incarnation necessary? I say that it was, for many reasons as you will see. Immo I say this to you, that there was no other way or a way that was better, more helpful or more suitable than for the Son of God to become man.

Firstly,[13] our first parents lived in a state of innocence, integrity and enlightenment before the fall, and then by deliberately obeying the serpent from hell they disgraced themselves and offended the divine infinite generosity. Thus there was no one who was able to repay an infinite debt except someone who was both God and man, that is Christ on the cross, who as the Second Person next to the Father, and who was infinite, and who came to make repayment for all of our faults. Indeed, there was no other way. If God knew another way, he did not choose to use it. If mankind wanted to take it on, he was incapable of doing so. Therefore for God ab aeterno wanted to have his Son become man.

Praeterea since by sinning man had rebelled against God, there was no way that man could have obtained forgiveness by his own actions. Therefore because the Son of God came from the Father and the Holy Spirit and was generated out of love and generosity, it was necessary that he should be the mediator who shared our flesh and suffering in order to reconcile us to God through perfect love and that he be the means that came down to us from heaven to lead us back to heaven. Thus by means of a connection between God and the man Christ a circle would be formed to lead us back to heaven in the lap of the Church triumphant.[14] Furthermore it was necessary for this to have been predicted in the Old Testament and appropriate that it fulfilled Scripture: At ubi venit plenitudo temporis.[15]

5692 In addition to this it was appropriate because of what happened to the Jewish people and Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. When the people were on Mount Horeb and saw the cloud blazing with fire they were afraid and so Moses said to them: “Do not doubt that God will speak to you and that you will hear what he asks of you.” Nevertheless, if you read it you will see that they did not ask anything from God but only said to Moses: Non loquatur nobis Dominus, ne forte moriamur: “Oh Moses we beg of you do not let God speak to us, because we are sure to die, because we are afraid of such grandeur, such power. Therefore, you speak to him and then you speak to us.”[16] They are suggesting that their God should find a medium, a true Moses who will deal with God on divine matters and not with us wretched people.

Praeterea, you see how the sun illuminates the entire world with its light, and how its rays pass through and penetrate all transparent bodies, and the more transparent they are the more it penetrates. Thus, it was appropriate that the Sun of Justice come to enlighten the world with his strength and wisdom.

Praeterea once again, the wise men of the world, including Plato,[17] said that man was created with a very well organised disposition in the state of innocence, because of which harmony, concord and great unity existed in the human creature, the spirit was subject to God, the senses to the spirit and everything was under the control of man. However, because of sin this orderliness was disrupted, and so it became necessary to bring this situation under control in which the spirit had rebelled against God, to make the senses obey the spirit and to correct whatever was fighting against the welfare of man. This required the work of a person who was infinite.

5693 Praeterea, go and read Genesis where Moses tells us that God created the world in six consecutive days, one after the other, and decided to create man on the sixth day as the noblest of all the creatures that he had made and as the one who possessed all that the other creatures possessed. Because he appeared to God to be so beautiful and so noble, this man whom he had created in his image and likeness, Moses said: Vidit Deus cuncta quae fecerat et erant valde bona,[18] because of his innocence. However, when man fell through sinning it became necessary for God to restore man to his former integrity and the best way that he could do that was by the Word being placed on the wood of the cross so that by his blood he could wash away all our blemishes and iniquity.

Taking this further. Because we had become God’s enemies through sin, we did not dare to ask God to have mercy on us or to pray that he would make peace with us, yet Christ was sent to make our peace with God, and he came as a human being. Oh what happy peacemaking this was! This is what Paul was talking about when he said: Pax quae exuperat omnem sensum.[19] This is a kind of peace that goes beyond our comprehension, nor can we understand it by the use of our intellect, only living faith can recognise such love for us that could not have done more than it did.

Praeterea it was appropriate for God to demonstrate his omnipotence in this mystery because he could not have shown it more clearly in any other way. The reason is this. Once he had created the world, he could have done something that was greater, when he had created many things he could have gone on endlessly creating more. However, once he had caused the Word to become flesh there was nothing more that he could give us.

5694 Praeterea in this mystery he has demonstrated his infinite justice in so far as he willed that whereas God who is infinite had been offended, the debt had been repaid through an infinite medium.

Praeterea it was fitting to draw us all to his divine love, seeing and contemplating how much he has loved us, that for us he gave his body, life, blood, heart and all the graces of paradise together, in such a way that there is not the merest woman, nor is there a person of any social state, who does not have cause to know this immense love of Christ for us, mirroring it with vibrant eyes of faith and glowing with love. If we looked at Him with faith we would recognise that there was not a sinner so frozen that could not become enflamed with love, nor someone as hardened as diamond who would never soften, or someone who was so full of sin that it could not be wash away by His blood. There can be nobody so proud that Christ’s humility cannot dispel his worldly pride or who could not learn from Him how to be poor. There could be no one who is so greedy that when he sees Christ’s generosity on the cross, would not learn how to give Christ his every desire and affection. There could be no one who is so sensual that when he sees Christ suffering so much for us, could not learn how to suffer and put up with every torment and pain for love of the loving Christ. Finally, in the Incarnate Word you will discover all the medicine and remedies to cure you of any sickness. Therefore, I tell you for certain that there was no more appropriate, more secure way, nothing more beneficial to you than the Incarnation. Let us pause for a short time.

5695 Oh I might say: “Oh if this is the great gift that it actually is, if God is so good, why take so long to send his Son? Could he not have sent him in the beginning? When a gift is given quickly it gives more pleasure and is better.” I tell you this is not right. The reason for this is our pride, because of which we would not have appreciated this gift had we not spent so much time with the loss of grace for our ancient fathers were the same as you: Dum medium [silentium] tenerent omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter perageret, omnipotens sermo tuus a regalibus sedibus venit.[20]

Because man had fallen into sin he remained in this silence up to the time of Noah when God chose to disperse the people because of their sin, even though some souls were saved in the ark. The Prophets and the Patriarchs broke away from servitude to the devil and when they saw that the people were no longer dispersed they prayed all the harder and asked God to send the Messiah to save them so that the omnipotent God deigned to send his Only Son to enlighten and to enrich the world with the graces that he brought from heaven.

Oh someone will say to me: “Could God not have sent an angel to redeem our sin?” I reply that he could have done that if he wanted to, but it was not fitting. Firstly, because that by sinning with pride, a great number of angels had been cast out from heaven even though many still remained there. However, when man fell into sin the whole of human nature fell and seeing that human nature was corporal not spiritual it was that a man would come to save other men.

5696 You might say to me: “Why did Christ not come to redeem angels?” I tell you that sin was the reason for the Incarnation of the Word. If there had been no sin, he would not have come. What is more, if an angel had come, he would not have been crucified and died for us, because angels cannot sin. So many innumerable gifts and benefits came from the passion and death that we can easily say that the thorns, the nails and the lance were what softened and smoothed all of our torment and pain when by looking at them they touched us so deeply. Because of the sin that they had committed against God, our early fathers were filled with so much shame before the face of God that they could not hide their shame with leaves and branches, but had to cover their shamefulness with flesh. We too who are so filled with shame and abomination because of our sins, it required that Christ come, not to cover us with flesh but so that he could take on our flesh in order to cover us with his divinity.

He did not come to save eight souls in the ark from the terrifying flood, but to redeem the entire human race. He did not come to save us from Pharaoh, but from servitude to the devil. He did not come to take us out of Egypt, but to free us from the hands of Lucifer. He did not come to drown our enemies in the Red Sea, but to drown our sins in his blood. He did not come to lead us in a column of fire, but to be our guide in his own person. He did not come to get water out of a solid rock, but to open our hearts through perfect love. He did not come to feed us with manna in the desert, but to feed us with his precious body. He did not come to lead us into the Promised Land, but to guide us into his side. He came not to build the holy city of Jerusalem, but to make us the heirs of heavenly glory.

Because of this, beloved soul, we are obliged to say, and to hold for certain, that the greater good, the greater gift, the supreme benefit that God could have given was the Incarnation of the Eternal Word in the most pure womb of the young virgin who ab aeterno was predestined by God to become the Mother of the Son of God, as I have told you. Let us now take a short pause.

5697 When the time had come which ab aeterno God had preordained to have his only Son take flesh in the womb of the immaculate holy young virgin as you can see today in St Luke,[21] the Gospel says: Missus est angelus Gabriel etc. The angel came to greet the Madonna and said: Ave, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus. Let God keep you full of grace, very full of grace, since you are to hold all of heaven’s graces within you once you conceive the Son of God. Therefore, Dominus tecum, (the Lord is with you) because the entire Trinity dwells in you. You are worthy to be blessed among all women because there has never been, nor will there be, anyone who deserved to be the Mother of God and tabernacle of the Holy Spirit.

Turbata est because of her great humility even though the angel had not yet told her that she was to be the Mother of God and still remain a virgin. Someone might say: “Perhaps she was disturbed by the angel’s visit?” I say that she was not disturbed because the angel clearly said the opposite when it says that turbata est in sermone. She was disturbed by the unusual manner of the greeting and thus the angel said: “Do not be frightened Mary, because you have received this grace from the Lord and you know that you will conceive and bring forth a son, who will be called Jesus, which means Saviour. He will be great and the Son of the Most High and will rule over his kingdom for all eternity.” Thus, he revealed the mystery little by little.

5698 The Madonna replied to this: Quomodo fiet istud, quoniam virum non cognosco? I have promised my virginity to God. The angel said: The Holy Spirit will come down on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you in such a way that what is born of you will be the Son of God and of the most holy Trinity. Therefore, you should not wonder that as you are a virgin you could conceive and give birth while you remain intact. You know that with God, because of his omnipotent power, nothing is impossible. I will give you a local example. Have you not heard about your cousin and relative Elizabeth for whom (humanly speaking) this was impossible, just as much as it is impossible because of your virginity? There were two reasons why it was impossible for her: she was old, and she was sterile, yet she conceived and gave birth. Therefore, you ought to believe that nothing is impossible for God.”

Note the great humility of the Madonna and her great charity when even though the angel had said great things, very exalted things, this young child believed and obeyed. This is something that we, who are sixty or seventy years old, do not do. God makes the angels speak every day and we never want to believe. The Madonna believed and obeyed in great humility and gave her consent. Thus she says: Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. As I told you the other day, she did not become proud in being the Mother of God. In the end, at that word, Christ’s soul was created and united to his body.

5699 Now the first thing to believe is that the Madonna who received this gift, this help, was filled with more happiness, more sweetness than you can imagine so that if she had not been supported by the hand of almighty God, she would have fainted, been overcome by such sweetness and love, recognising the fruit was human Redemption. Note Mary’s great humility in not accepting the dignity and the honour of becoming the Mother of God but saying: “I am the handmaid and servant.” We might easily think that she could have said: My Lord, I am happy that I am your servant, and at the same time the servant of your Son, the one who feeds him, and holds him in her arms, and to endure every kind of stress in raising him for the good of all the elect. I am happy to spend thirty-three years in this world and to suffer from hunger, cold, heat and anything else for your glory. At the end of this time, at the time that you have established, I also want to see him arrested in Jerusalem, flogged, mocked, struck, tortured and struck down to the point of death. Not only this, I want to go with him to Mount Calvary to see my child placed on the wood of the cross between two thieves so that the world could be redeemed. I am also happy that when he has been taken down from the cross to hold him in my arms and, together with his disciples, to carry him to the tomb. I will then be happy to go home deprived of my child, though wishing all the time that he was alive, while thanking and praising you for the great gift of our salvation.”

Beloved soul, you should do the same and not be ungrateful for such a gift, such a treasure that Christ has given you through his merits, making you a child of God, and recalling this gift, thank him continuously. If you do this you will merit conceiving Christ in your soul in these holy days and, after Easter, to bring him forth at least by giving good example and in prayer. I entreat you to do this and advise you strongly to resolve to do as much as God will grant you.

  1. Tuesday 25th March 1539.
  2. Lk 3: 16
  3. Lk 1: 34-35
  4. Compare this sentence with Const 1536, n. 4: 2 (n. 154)
  5. Gen 12:18; 26:4
  6. Gen 49:10
  7. Ps 131:11 (Vulg.).
  8. Is 7:14
  9. Mic 5:2
  10. Dn 9:24-26. The text has seventy-two weeks.
  11. Is 53:8; Act 8:33
  12. Note Ochino’s ability to sum up the outcome of the prophesies concerning the coming of Christ in a few words and with selected Biblical quotations.
  13. He presents various theological reasons for the need and appropriateness of the Incarnation summarising many scholastic opinions.
  14. This image has a very close resemblance to what was presented in the Circolo del divino amore by Francesco da Jesi.
  15. Gal 4:4.
  16. The Latin quote is also from Dt 18: 16 but mainly from Ex 4: 16. See also Dt 5: 23-31. This reflection may also be found in chapter 2 of Trattato utilissimo del Beneficio di G. C. cit, (cf. C. Ginzburg= A. Prosperi, Giochi di pazienza cit., 217s).
  17. Plato treats of this in the Phaedo and in The Republic. Cf. Grande antologia filosofica, I, 261ss, 268-279.
  18. Gen 1: 31
  19. Phil 1:7
  20. Wis 18:14-15
  21. All of the following quotes come from the Gospel according to Luke 1:26-38. Note also the beautiful way that Ochino comments on the Gospel.