I don’t think any of our great Oscar-winning film directors could do justice interpreting the story from Luke that was this morning’s Gospel lesson – we know it as the Story of the Annunciation, found at Luke 1:26-38, when an angel appears to Mary of Nazareth and informs her of God’s plan and her important part in that plan. How can you truly capture the beauty, profundity, and humanity of that brief moment in history that changed all of our lives?
Artists working in every medium have interpreted the Annunciation of the Lord – the Italian masters with their elegant madonnas seated before prayer desks and reading scripture in Tuscan porticoes and villa gardens, the Flemish school with its serene and clever-looking Maries receiving their heavenly messengers in opulent, well-appointed bed chambers and libraries in town houses overlooking canals. Each of these paintings proclaim the good news that came to Mary of Nazareth and became even greater news for all of us.
It is, in my opinion, the nineteenth century painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that conveys the story best of all. It was executed between 1849 and 1850 and is entitled Ecce Ancilla Domini! – Behold the Handmaid of the Lord!, or The Annunciation. I came across this picture when I was a teenager and that painting has stayed with me.
Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849-1850, The Tate Gallery, London
Rossetti has captured the moment Gabriel appears to Mary. The setting is a sun-lit, sparse bedroom. You can almost feel the heat of the morning, a spring morning. None of the opulent clutter and color of the medieval and renaissance masters are here, for everything is clean and white in appearance, from Gabriel’s sleeveless tunic to the linens on Mary’s bed – but there are touches of color. There is a blue drape hanging near the bed and a bright red scarf upon which a lily is embroidered. Gold flames encircle Gabriel’s feet – the presence of the Lord, or the means by which the archangel has appeared? Or both?
The archangel is in mid-step, approaching the bed where Mary is cowering. She looks a bit apprehensive, a bit perturbed. Off in the background and ready to light is a small white bird, a symbol of the Holy Spirit – barely noticeable yet present in the moment. We’ve experienced that ourselves, haven’t we? Moments and instances when we knew, we absolutely knew the Holy Spirit was with us.
And it was so with Mary, in life and in this painting where we see Gabriel’s left hand raised in greeting. In the archangel’s right is a lily, a symbol of purity, that is offered. Mary, as I’ve mentioned, is up against the wall in a corner, looking apprehensive and perturbed. She looks to me as if she wants to be as far away as possible from this heavenly being.
I know I would – at first.
After all, it is very human to be afraid of what we do not understand, nor is logical to our modern mindset. I don’t know what I’d do in the circumstance, I really don’t know – except be frightened.
What would you do? Would you shriek in terror and cower against the wall, clutching a pillow for defense? Would you roll over, pull the covers up over your head and ask Himself to shut the door on its angelic way out? Would you yawn, mumble, grab the alarm clock and check the time? Make it a WTF moment?
What would you do?
What Mary does is astonishing.
She accepts what is given to her, a place in humanity, with obedience, surety sight unseen.
Mary receives some very sobering news from Gabriel. She has found favor with God; she will conceive and bear a son whose very existence will transform the world. The author of Luke tells us that she accepts the news, not that she ponders it for a moment, but simply states, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.”
God has made the decision and it is good enough for Mary.
Now, did Mary understand what had been decided for her? Did she know what she had gotten herself and the world into? I wonder what would have happened if Mary had simply said, “No.” Would God have gone about looking for another girl in a small Judean village? What if no one had said yes to God? Our world would be a lot worse than it has been in the past and recent times!
Mary’s unconditional acceptance of God’s will would ultimately lead to the greatest sacrifice of all – giving birth to a child who would grow into manhood and sacrifice himself for us out of acceptance of God’s will, out of love for God and out of obedience to God.
She would watch him die a criminal’s death.
During that agonizing day, did Mary reflect back on the morning the archangel appeared to her, remembering how it all began?
The news was undoubtedly unsettling to Joseph and to her own mother, Anna, yet they, too, accepted the Lord’s will. One can imagine that Mary settled into her role as wife to Joseph the Carpenter and as the child grew in her womb, felt the baby move, anticipated the birth of this, her first child, and dreamt about what the child would look like, consider his future, ponder all the things young mothers are wont to do. Perhaps the archangel’s message never strayed from her thoughts. She knew she was not your typical young mother in first century Palestine.
Mary’s acceptance, obedience and sacrifice have her a place in the kingdom of heaven set apart from the rest of us. She has been called the Queen of Heaven and revered as a mediator, our lady of sorrows who wipes away our tears and comforts us; she is the mother of us all. She is above all, the Christ Bearer, a child theotokos that no woman alive in the past or present could equal, yet we have been held to her standard by some to this day.
What if I told you, as I mentioned before in an earlier post, that Mary was like you and me? She was a Jewish girl who lived an ordinary life until that moment, expected all that came to girls of her time, and received something entirely different.
And yet, she was a girl.
She is that apprehensive girl, she is a person who loves God and wants to please the Lord by doing what is asked of her. She is someone going about her business when God spoke and she responded.
God speaks to us and we respond. We may not have been chosen to bear the savior of the world, but even so, we respond as best we can and within our means to do so.
By returning God’s unconditional outpouring of love and loving Christ and transforming that love into a community of faithful that has withstood many trials and tests over time. Here it is close to the middle of the first decade of the 21st century and here we are, days away from commemorating the birth of his Son, and today remembering a young girl who said let it be. Let it be according to your Word.
I invite you to look at this marvelous painting by Rossetti I’ve described here, or any of the countless painting and illustrations of the Annunciation and meditate on what this young girl of Nazareth did and how simple acts of acceptance, obedience and sacrifice improved our lives. That about what it would be like to be visited by a stranger who carries good news from God – news that you or I could make a difference to others and to the world.
We can hide under the covers or stare in trepidation at the messenger before us and wonder what’s up, but ultimately, I hope you and I will, knowing that it is right and good, give ourselves completely to God, and be like Mary, saying let it be with us according to God’s word.
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord,