Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, 2006
Philip Bewley, Pastoral Worker & Stipendiary Lay Minister,
St Peter's, Eastern Hill
I'm sure you will all agree the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the most beautiful stories in the Christian tradition. It has all the qualities of high drama a young woman being called to take part in the salvation of the world. And perhaps it is this quality of high drama which has led many artists over the centuries to capture the intensity of the scene. If any of you have been lucky enough to stroll through a European Art Gallery, like the Louvre in Paris, or the National Gallery in London, you will know that there are countless Renaissance paintings which depict this decisive moment in history. Mary is nearly always portrayed as an idealized image of womanhood, carefully composed and beautiful. While reading the scriptures in her country Italian room, she is interrupted by a dazzling angel the angel Gabriel.
For many years I have understood the Annunciation as a powerful invitation from God which God is offering Mary. Out of all the people on earth, God chooses this young woman to give birth to the Saviour of the world. Mary is of course much perplexed by Gabriel's words, and the question is, "Will she agree to do it?" I believe Martin Luther once wrote that "all heaven and earth held its breath to see if Mary would say yes." And of course she obediently does with the words, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
But as I ponder more deeply the words in today's Gospel, I believe there is another significant aspect to this story worth considering or if you like, another angle to be taken. It would seem to me, God perhaps, isn't so much inviting Mary to consider taking on this role, as informing her that something immense is about to happen through her. If you listen carefully, Gabriel isn't asking her if she would like to become the mother of Jesus, that is, whether she would care to think about it, or whether it fits in with her plans no, not at all he says rather, "Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son." Hence, Gabriel is informing Mary of what is about to happen. And Mary, it would seem to me, has the task of "coming to terms" with this startling news.
This has been brought home to me through a remarkable, yet unconventional painting of the Annunciation by the 16th century artist, Lorenzo Lotto which is reproduced above, so I invite you to take a look. It was painted as an altar piece for an oratory in Recanati in Italy, a small town near the Adriatic Coast. You can see that Mary as usual has been quietly reading the scriptures in her room. In it we don't see the usual composed Mary, listening attentively to Gabriel's announcement, bowing her head in submission. Rather, we see a shocked Mary, turned toward us the viewer, and away from Gabriel, her eyes wide with apprehension and surprise. And there is an interesting dance-like movement to both figures. Looming over Gabriel's head, in the sky just beyond the room, is the figure of God, with hands and arms outstretched, pointing to Mary. And at the centre of this scene is a cat, running across the room, with its back arched and its front paws in flight, fleeing in terror. It would have been against the decorum of the day to show Mary, herself, in fear, so Lotto has used the cat to amplify Mary's fear instead. Every detail of this painting speaks of tension, apprehension and alarm. And Mary is looking at us as if to say, "What am I to do." This is certainly not the usual Mary of Christian art and tradition, bowing in obedience before the angel a Mary submitting unreservedly to God's will. Instead, Lotto's Mary appears to be in a dilemma she is trying to come to terms with the immense demand God is placing upon her.
We know, not surprisingly, that Mary was "much perplexed" by Gabriel's words. She responds with, "How can this be?" And once she starts asking questions, I suspect she can't stop. How could God need me of all people? Will Joseph still want to marry me if the child is not his? What will people think? Will I be written off by my family and friends? You can imagine her worries and concerns they must have been endless. But what seems apparent to me anyway is that this is going to happen, whether she gets satisfactory answers or not. So for Mary, is escape an option? Can she turn and run away? I think this is the dilemma Lotto is trying to capture in this painting. And we need to remind ourselves that at this point in the story, Mary would have had no way of knowing the significance of Gabriel's message. Even so, Mary does say "Yes" not a plain and simple "Yes" mind you but a yes which shows Mary's willingness to co-operate with God's purpose in the world, even though that purpose seems unclear.
So what this painting has brought home to me is that there is a way of seeing the Annunciation, not so much as the moment Mary is given the fateful opportunity to say yes or no to God, but the moment she has to come to terms with the fact that God is doing something through her. This is the real dilemma I believe Mary faces. Does she really have much of a choice in the matter? Well I leave that thought with you to mull over! What is certain, however, is that God is the initiator in this story. We see it time and again throughout the scriptures. Remember God's call to Abraham, or Jesus' call to his first disciples, just to think of two examples. God breaks into people's lives, calling them, acting through them, giving them tasks to perform and the gifts to accomplish them.
Mary stands alone in history as the receiver of this particular "Annunciation" from God, that is, to be the God-bearer. And this story has something significant to tell us too. We too receive from God our own particular "Annunciations" in life. Isn't it true that many of the most important events in our lives appear to choose us? We make elaborate plans, we contemplate life-long goals. And then something unexpected happens a job offer is placed in our laps, or we fall in love, or an ageing parent needs us. Perhaps we just suddenly feel drawn to change direction in life or to make a difference in the world. But none of these events are planned!
We find ourselves, like Mary in Lotto's painting, anxious and disturbed in a quandary even wondering what to do. And when that happens, what choice are we to make? We can either live this new life that God is holding out to us which often means following the path unknown or we can spend a lot of time and energy, fighting and resisting it.
Six years ago I was faced with my own dilemma, to either stay in England, my then home of 12 years, or return to Australia, the place of my birth. Diagnosed depression, coupled with a lack of direction and purpose in my life, brought me to a crossroads. It was an extremely difficult decision to make. And I had others to think about too. But, I took a leap of faith. I sensed that God was calling me to make a change, but to what at the time I had no idea. My yes to God was full of the same fears, doubts and uncertainties as Mary's in Lotto's painting. I was leaving the comfort of a stable job, a beautiful home in the English countryside, and many friends, and yet somehow it seemed the right thing to do. But, here I am, 6 years on, standing in this pulpit, speaking to you today as part of the ministry team of this parish. So it seems, somewhere along the line I received an Annunciation, perhaps not as dramatic as Mary's, but an Annunciation all the same. I could have ignored this call to a new life, and it would have been easy to do so! But it is interesting to speculate what sort of person I would now be if I had. And frankly, I don't think it bears considering!
God's Annunciations come in the concrete circumstances of our lives. God is somehow mystically there in them! And it needs to be said that these Annunciations can be hidden in situations that God would never choose to happen the loss of a loved one, the end of a job or relationship, an illness, or hard times for us or for those we care about. God works through our struggles just as much as he works through our joys!
Annunciations come as doors that open, as new work to be done, new relationships to begin, even new burdens to carry. They come too in glimpses we get of the need of the world around us.
So my question to you today is this What new life is stirring within you? What are you pregnant with? What are you being called to do? Perhaps a yearning for a deeper, more connected life at home with family or friends? Perhaps a longing for a deeper relationship with God? Or perhaps a deeper calling to a generous life that makes a difference in the world around you? Only you can answer these questions.
These Annunciations, when they do come, whisper "Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you!" and they invite us to let our lives be disrupted by a God chooses us to further his purpose in the world. And then be assured, God waits patiently ever so patiently for our loving and willing response!
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.