Bonne Nouvelle

 8  9

Mary’s mother has taught her to be wary of angels.

“Fear not,” Anne says.  Her Aramaic is slow, and strangely accented, but she has told this story so often that it comes without pause or hesitation.

“He told me that, when I first saw him.  ‘Fear not, for you have found favour with the Lord, and your prayer has been heard.’  And then he put me in a boat, all sick as I was with the sea and with carrying you, and sent me to a foreign land, and I never saw my home again.”

“You never saw de Moëllien again, either, which was blessing enough, from what my mother says.”  Elizabeth has heard the story too, and lived through part of it, but she was too young at the time to really understand why her aunt had fled.  She mostly remembers the fear in her parents’ voices, when word came that De Moëllien had died suddenly, and that his wife’s family were suspected of his murder.  Then the frantic sewing of coins into hidden seams and pockets in their clothing, and the flight from Brittany late at night, dressed in three layers of clothes and carrying everything they could on their backs…

Anne shudders in memory.  “True, niece.  And I thank God every day for his mercy in helping me escape.  And in leading me to Joachim, good man that he is.  But he was wrong to tell me not to fear.”

“Why was he wrong?”  Mary has never understood this part.  For all her mother’s complaints about angels, she has always seemed happy with Joachim, and he clearly dotes on Anne.

Anne smiles at her daughter.  Joachim is at the temple with Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and the three women are preparing the Sabbath meal together. “Imagine travelling to a foreign country, with a child in your womb, no husband to sustain you nor money in your purse, and no word of the language in your head, and there being told you must marry a man you have never yet seen.  Would you not be afraid?”

Mary ponders that in her heart.  She thinks she would be afraid, yet if the angel has said it will be alright, surely there can be nothing truly to fear?  Only the unknown… and yet, the unknown must be known to God, and through him, to his angels, and through his angels to us…

Elizabeth has a different question.  “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t understand any Aramaic.  Our family came from here, didn’t they?  Mother and Father always spoke Aramaic to me, even back in Brittany.”

Anne shrugs.  “Your mother is thirteen years my elder, remember.  She was born here, before the Romans came, and she was fifteen when our parents died.  But I was born in Brittany, as our ship landed on the beach at Carnac, and I hardly remember our parents at all.  I’m sure Ismérie spoke Aramaic to me when I was small, but her first husband was a local man, and so I grew up speaking Breton.  By the time she met your father, I was nearly grown.”

So many flights from danger, thinks Mary, slicing onions for the stew.  She knows her mother fled Brittany and her first husband mostly to protect her; her aunt and uncle had fled for Elizabeth’s sake as much as for their own.  Why had her grandparents gone to Brittany in the first place?  Had they also feared for the lives of their daughters under Roman rule?  Her hands falter in their movements, and the knife slips and cuts her thumb.

Her mother is beside her immediately, holding Mary’s hand up and away from the food, and pressing against the cut with a clean cloth.  She smiles down at her daughter and her niece.  “What do angels know of fear?  They have never carried their heart in their womb, and birthed it, so small and fragile into the world.  They have never known the helplessness of motherhood, of watching your child grow and face the world and all the beautiful and terrible things it contains, knowing that you can’t protect her from it all, no matter that you would give your life to do so.  To be a mother is to be afraid at every moment, and to cherish that fear with all one’s heart, because it is the symptom of a love one cannot do without.  No, Gabriel was wrong to tell me not to fear.”

Elizabeth draws in a sharp breath, then turns away from where she is shaping the sweet dough for the Sabbath bread.  Her fists clench at her sides.  “I would give anything to be so afraid.”

Mary knocks over the water pitcher in her haste to comfort her cousin, and her mother sends her for a mop.  “There, my love,” Mary hears her saying to her Elizabeth as she rummages in the cupboard.  “I know it’s hard.  Children have never come easily to the women in our family.  It was six years for your mother, and nearly twelve for me, and yet we were blessed in the end.  Don’t give up hope yet.”

Mary thinks about her mother’s words as she mops the floor.  Hope is important, but she  thinks perhaps fear might be a good thing too, even something to embrace.


Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, has always been a man of few words.  She would not have thought the difference between ‘few’ and ‘none’ would be so stark.

But it has only been three days, and already the silence is getting to her.

Zechariah had returned from the temple silent but radiant.

“He had a vision,” explains the young neighbour who walked home with him.

Elizabeth looks from her husband to the young man, then back again.  “What sort of vision?” she asks, but the young man does not know, so she feeds him and sends him on his way.

Later, she plays twenty questions with Zechariah, trying to understand what had happened.

She doesn’t get very far.

“Is it good news?” she asks at last.

Zechariah smiles, nods.  He lays a hand over her stomach, palm down, fingers spread.

Elizabeth does not dare to believe it.  Surely she is too old for this.  “A baby?” she whispers, nonetheless, and her husband’s smile broadens.

Elizabeth finds herself weeping.

Pregnancy makes her weep a lot, she finds.

Zechariah writes the whole thing down for her, a few weeks later, and she reads it, slowly and with effort.  He taught her to read after their marriage, but she has never found it easy.

The angel does not come to her, of course.  Perhaps he knows better than to visit a niece of Anne’s.  But Elizabeth would have liked to have someone tell her to fear not.  Someone with authority, and with knowledge.

Pregnancy at forty-five is a fearsome thing, after all.

(Late at night, she wonders if the angel came to Zechariah and not to her because he can not, in good conscience, tell her not to fear.)

Elizabeth does not go out for the first five months.  She does not want to brave the stares of her neighbours, their congratulations or their sly comments, until she has felt the child move in her womb.  He will be named John, Zechariah has told her.  Yochanan – God is gracious.

Hope is almost more painful than fear, but Elizabeth holds it tightly nonetheless.  If the angel is involved, she has cause for both.  Elizabeth prepares herself for a bumpy ride.


Mary has tripped over the lintel and scattered dates across the floor.  She is picking them up and wondering whether she has enough water to wash them off without making another trip to the well when the angel appears, and kneels before her.

“Hail, Mary, you who are full of grace.”

Her mother had not told her that angels could be sarcastic.  Mary brushes dust from her knees, and stands, slowly.

The angel smiles, and the room is filled with light.  “The Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women.”

Mary wonders what this might mean. “Thank you?” she replies, tentatively.

“Fear not,” the angel tells her, and fear and hope explode within Mary, almost too much for her soul to encompass.

By the time he finishes speaking, she is terrified, and amazed, and filled with joy and a certainty that whatever else happens, it will be alright in the end.

She says yes.


Joseph is a good man, but he does not take Mary’s news well.  Anne promises to deal with him, and sends Mary to visit with her cousin while things are getting sorted out.

“Angels, indeed,” she says, in disgust.  “I’d like to have a word with that Gabriel.”

He appears to her that night in a dream.  “Fear not,” he tells her in Breton, and she sits up in the boat, where she is once more pregnant with Mary, and glares at him.

“My daughter is pregnant out of wedlock thanks to you, and her betrothed wants to call things off.”

“She is highly favoured of the Lord,” Gabriel reminds her, and Anne sees again the radiance in her daughter’s face when she brought her astonishing news.

“Then the Lord needs to help her, or she will have no husband.”

“She who trusts in the Lord need have no fear.”

Anne rolls her eyes.  “My daughter is too young to have any fear.  And I am her mother – it’s my job to be afraid on her behalf.  If the Lord has got her with child, how is he going to see that child safe delivered?  My husband is old, and we are not wealthy.”

Gabriel sighs.  “I will speak to Joseph.”

Anne nods.  “You do that.  But when you do, don’t tell him to fear not.”

Gabriel blinks.  “His betrothed is favoured of the Lord.  What should he fear?”

Anne sighs.  “You told my daughter her son would reign over the House of Jacob forever and his Kingdom would have no end.  Don’t you think the Romans might be a little unhappy about that?  Not to mention Herod.  Joseph needs to be prepared in order to protect them.  Especially if you’ve been telling anyone else your good news.”

If ever an angel could look shifty, Gabriel looks it now.  Anne sighs.  “You have, haven’t you?  How long do you think my grandson will reign over Judah if you keep telling people about it?  Especially people who might want to do a little reigning themselves?”

Gabriel has regained his lofty, angelic demeanour.  “His reign will be spiritual, not temporal,” he explains, haughtily.

Anne shakes her head.  “Do you really think the Kings of this world will care about that?  You need to fix this, Gabriel.  And stop telling people not to be afraid when a little healthy fear might be good for them.”


Luke has not been able to find the wise men, and of course Pilate’s wife would not speak to a lowly Greek doctor, and a Christ-follower at that, but the elderly shepherd is all too willing to tell his story.

“I was just a boy then, of course, but I remember it clear as clear.  It was just the one at first.  We thought he’d come to steal our sheep.  The sheep thought so too, I reckon.  I’ve never heard anything like them when he appeared.  But he held up his hands and said something I couldn’t catch and they all quietened down nicely enough.  That was a sight, though.  I’ve never seen anything as white as his robes.”

Luke nods, making a note on his writing table.  This was all good detail.  Exciting, yet picturesque.  He could do something with this.

“So what did the angel say, do you remember?”

“Oh yes.  I particularly remember because he spoke like one of us.  Man to man, you know?  He apologised for startling the sheep, and he told us our job was important.  He grinned a bit, like he was making some sort of joke, but it he was friendly about it.  Not patronising.  Anyway, he told us he was an angel, and that he had a message for us, and old Reuben asked if he was sure he’d come to the right place then, because we were common men.  But he just smiled and sort of lit up, and we knew he was an angel alright.  Nearly pissed ourselves, and I would have run away, only the sheep were calm, and sheep are smarter than they look.  And difficult to move, when they are all standing around you like that, not going anywhere.  So I stayed.”

The old man nodded, and Luke suppresses a sigh.  This did not sound like angelic behaviour.  But it was to be expected that a shepherd would remember things on his own terms.

“So what happened next?” he encourages.

“Well, when we’d all calmed down a bit, he told us that some woman called Mary had had a baby, who was going to make things better for everyone, even shepherds.  Maybe not immediately, but he’d speak so well of us that we’d be remembered.  We weren’t too sure what to make of that, to be honest.  But then he said that he and his friends would mind the sheep and we should take the night off and go to Bethlehem to see the baby, and Samuel remembered that he’d heard something about his cousin Joseph’s wife expecting a child, so we thought we might as well.  And then the angel said something and a whole lot of other angels showed up and began singing to the sheep, which was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen or heard, and the first angel told us to look for a stable with a star above it, and Samuel said that that couldn’t be right, no cousin of his would be born in a stable, but we thought we might as well check it out.”

Luke has stopped taking notes.  “So you went to Bethlehem?”

“We did indeed.  And it was Samuel’s cousin’s wife, right enough, in the stable, just like the angel had said.  Cute baby, too.  Lots of dark hair, like his parents, and he kept hiccupping, even when he was asleep.  We gave them a lambswool blanket that Samuel’s wife had made, and helped move them to his house.  A stable is no place for a baby.  We never did find out why the angel wanted us there, either.  I mean it was a nice evening, and it was good that we were able to help out a bit, but I don’t know that it was all that significant in the long run.  They had to run off to Egypt not long after, when there was that terrible business with Herod, and I heard the kid got himself in trouble with the Romans a few years back and came to a bad end, poor sod.”

He shakes his head.  “Pity that.  His parents seemed like nice folk.  I’d hoped it would all work out for them in the end.”


Luke always looks a little embarrassed when he visits Mary.  She has a small cottage now, not far from Marseilles, and she lives alone, but not lonely.  Her son’s friends keep an eye on her, one or another of them dropping in every day to help with anything she needs help with, or to invite her for a meal, and John comes to stay with her for a few months every winter.

She had found herself unable to stay in Judah after everything was over and done.  Even knowing him resurrected and ascended, Mary could not forget the agony of watching her son’s suffering and death at the hands of the people he had come to save.  There were too many cruel memories in Judah, and too many visitors.  Too many people who came to stare at her in silent awe, forgetting that she was woman as well as icon.

So Mary had sold her home in Nazareth, and retired to her mother’s homeland of Brittany, and when that proved too cold for her ageing bones, she had travelled again, south, to where Lazarus and his sisters had set up their home.  She had heard that some back in Judah thought she had been taken bodily to heaven, to dwell alongside her son.  If it helped them to believe that, she would not contradict it, but she has not seen Gabriel in years.

Luke, on the other hand, visits her rather often.  He is an earnest young man, a doctor of medicine, very devout, and very learned, or so she has heard.  Alas, in her presence he is tongue-tied and shy, and she has seen little evidence of the linguistic brilliance that everyone else assures her of.  She finds it rather endearing, and smiles at him kindly, beckoning him into her garden to sit down.

“What do you need from me today, child?” she asks.

Luke looks uncertain how to respond to this.  “I don’t want to intrude,” he starts.

“Of course you do.  You want to write the book of my son’s life, so that all may read about him and love him as you do, and as I do.  You can’t do that without intruding.”

The young man looks appalled, so she smiles at him.  “It’s an important thing that you are doing.  Ask what you like.  I will answer.”

Luke blushes a little, but gathers himself.  “You are very kind, my lady.”

She cannot convince him to call her Mary.

“When the angel first came to you to tell you that you would be the mother of our Lord, what did he say?”

Mary laughs before she can stop herself.  “Well, I remember he said ‘fear not’, because my mother had always warned me about that.  And it was rather poor advice in the end.  But… let’s see.  First, he called me full of grace, which I assure you I was not at that age, and then he said ‘you are highly favoured, the Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women’.”  She paused, remembering the fear and the delight of it.  And the deep sense of connection with her mother, and with her cousin Elizabeth, and their distant foremothers, Sarah, and the mother of Samson.  All the women who had spoken to angels, and had their lives irrevocably altered.

She smiles in memory.  “And then he told me that I had found favour with God, and would conceive and bring forth a son who would reign over the house of Jacob forever.”

Luke noted this down eagerly, then resumed his earnest posture of the Official Interviewer.  “And what did you say to that?”

Mary laughs again.  “I asked how this could be, since I was a virgin, you know, and Joseph my betrothed was no King or Prince that I knew of.  And he said that the Holy Spirit would come upon me and overshadow me – which sounded terrifying, incidentally – and that my child would be the son of God.  And before I could think what that might mean, he told me that my cousin Elizabeth was pregnant at last, and that this would be a sign.  Though the bit with the Holy Spirit sounded as though it would be sign enough on its own.  But that’s angels for you – all the detail in the world about the things which are obvious, and none at all about the things one does not understand.”

Luke coughs a little, evidently trying to hide his blush.  Was it the talk of virginity, or her casual attitude to angels?  She trusted it was not the talk of pregnancy.  A doctor should have some understanding of such matters.  He really was very young, Mary reflected.  Had he even been born before Jesus’ death?

“And what happened then?”

Mary sobers.  “I said yes, of course.  Because I was terrified, but if the Lord had a use for me, then what could I say but yes?  And how could I be less than joyful in doing so?  I do wish, though, that he had told me how hard it would be.  Or perhaps not.  If I’d known, I might not have had the courage to go through with it.”

Luke looks shocked.  “Of course you would have!” he exclaims.  “You are an inspiration to all of us – your steadfastness, your wisdom, your unfaltering love and grace and courage even at the end.”

Mary shakes her head.  “Oh, it wasn’t unfaltering!  If you had heard the prayers I flung at God in that time, you would not idealise me so.  But someone had to be strong and calm, and at least I was prepared.  My son’s friends thought him invulnerable.  They thought that the Son of God could never be hurt or defeated, no matter what he told them to the contrary, and so when it happened they were paralysed with shock as well as with grief.

“But he was my son, too – I had carried him in my womb and I knew him to be flesh as well as God, vulnerable to all the things that can harm a man, and I had feared for him all his life.  And so, when I heard he had been arrested and condemned, I wept, but I was not surprised.  And so I went to the cross and to the tomb, and the other women came with me, because my son could not be left to die alone, or to rot without proper burial, and if we did not go, who would?”

Luke looks as though he is going to cry.  And well he might; more and more, Mary is certain that he never met her son – he is too young, and knows only the God, and not the man.  “But… it did all work out in the end, though,” he offers eventually.  “He rose again, and we will rise too, in our time, and see him face to face.”

Mary stifles a sigh. “Of course we will.  But can you not understand that, despite all of that, despite knowing that he is well and that we will one day be reunited, I have lost my son in this world, and I still grieve that loss?  Yes, I will see him one day, but he will never truly be my little boy again.”

Luke does not seem to know what to say to that.  The silence lengthens, and Mary smiles a little and has mercy on him.  “My mother was right when she warned me about angels.”

Luke blinks at the change of topic.  “She was?”

“They do not think like us.  They do not understand us.  They tell us not to fear, when fear is the other half of joy.  I had more joy in my son than any woman had before or after, and more fear, and more grief too.  And I would not undo that for all the world.  ‘Fear not’ is the wrong message.”

“What would be the right one, then?”

Mary smiles at him.  “Do not lose hope.”


Luke reads over the first chapter of his book.  He is still not sure what to make of Mary’s comments about angels, but the song she sang for Elizabeth, and again for him, is magnificent – he has translated it into the most beautiful Greek he knows how to write, and only wishes that his Lord’s mother could read it.

Zechariah’s wife, too has been generous with her time and her words.

It is all very satisfactory so far, but now he needs to write about the census, and the stable, and the shepherds.

He looks over his notes from the interview again, and he frowns.  Something is definitely missing from the angel’s words.  And the tone isn’t right, either.  Gabriel didn’t speak like that to Mary or to Zechariah.  He shakes his head.  The shepherd must have got it wrong.  Oh, the sense of it is probably right, and it certainly isn’t his fault, but he is an uneducated man, not accustomed to memorising speeches or scrolls.  It wouldn’t be surprising if he translated it in his memory to something that made more sense to him.  After all, he was only a boy at the time.

No, Luke is clearly going to have to reconstruct the angel’s speech himself.  He will use the shepherd’s memories as the basis for it, and his interviews with Mary and with Elizabeth for the style. With God’s help, Luke will get closer to the truth of the angel’s words.

He picks up his writing table, and begins.

“There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  And lo!  An angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, fear not!  For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord…”



Angels, Brittany, and the Gospel of Luke

Bonne Nouvelle is a station at the junction of the 2nd, 9th and 10th arondissements of Paris, not far from the Marais.  It was opened in 1931, serving Lines 8 and 9, and is in the middle of a five-station stretch where the two lines run alongside each other from Richelieu-Druot to République.  Bonne Nouvelle was named for a church, Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle (our Lady of Good News, which refers to the Annunciation – Gabriel’s visit to Mary telling her that she would conceive Jesus).

This story comes from a few different places – most obviously, the fact that we are in the middle of Advent and I have been doing nothing but singing Advent music for the last three weeks and have a complete Handel’s Messiah earworm.  It’s amazing how much of the Gospel of Luke you get in your head if you sing in church choirs for a few years (Isaiah and the Psalms also feature prominently, as do the other Gospels).  And there is also the fact that when I was in Paris earlier this year, I went to the most theologically infuriating son-et-lumière show at Nôtre Dame de Paris, which managed to be all about Mary without actually granting her any agency in her story.

But this story really starts with Saint Anne, also known as Hannah, who is said to have been the mother of Mary and thus the grandmother of Jesus.  There are a lot of stories about Anne, many of them mutually incompatible, but one of my favourites is the one where she was born in Brittany and escaped an abusive marriage when the Angel Gabriel put her on a boat to Palestine.  She was, apparently, already pregnant with Mary at that point.

Of course, stories, some within the Bible, but most really not, place Anne as the aunt of Elizabeth, who is married to Zechariah, a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem, which suggests that even if Anne was born in Brittany, it wasn’t to Breton parents.  And Mary is supposed to be of the House of David, which also wouldn’t be possible if her family was French (and, frankly, I have a problem with any myth that completely erases Jesus’ Jewish heritage).  On the other hand, one lineage I found of Mary suggested that Anne’s (presumably elder) sister, Ismérie, was born the year the Romans invaded Palestine.  This seemed as good a reason as any for the family to emigrate to Brittany, and nicely prefigures the Flight into Egypt.  But I can’t promise that the timelines work, entirely.

Incidentally, I am far from the first person to relocate New Testament figures to France, though I don’t believe anyone else is claiming that Mary the mother of Jesus actually retired there.  The French, it seems, spent quite a lot of the Middle Ages writing stories in which just about every important character in the New Testament spent time in France.  Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, for example, are said to have settled near Marseilles; Mary Magdelene, when she isn’t being conflated with Mary of Bethany, wound up in Provence, and Jesus himself visited his grandmother Anne in Brittany and created a magical healing spring there.  (Once the French had thoughtfully placed Saints all over France, they went to work on figures from the Arthurian legends.  Everyone who is anyone goes to France eventually…)

But mostly, I wondered what sort of family produces three women whose lives are turned upside-down by angels.  And whether ‘fear not’ really is good advice to give at that point.  As usual, any dubious theology in this story is entirely my own.

The images I have used are a detail from Willem van Herp’s Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin Mary to Read (1614–1677), Edward Frampton’s The Annunciation (before 1922), a detail from Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Robert Cole’s The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (~1833), and a detail from a tapestry called The Visitation (~1410), which can be found at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main.


Grands Boulevards
fleur8left Bonne Nouvelle
fleur8right Strasbourg–Saint-Denis
Grands Boulevards
fleur9left Bonne Nouvelle
fleur9right Strasbourg–Saint-Denis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *