We have arrived at the Fourth Sunday of Advent and look ahead to the Nativity of the Lord in only a few days. The gospel reading this Sunday is from Luke, and it is the story of the Annunciation. I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in the bible. A friend of mine has a book called “Annunciation” which is a collection of images of the Annunciation story as it has been painted through the centuries. In Philadelphia, at the Art Museum, if you go up to the second floor and turn to the left, you’ll find yourself in the galleries of European Art, 1100-1500. There you can see paintings of the Annunciation from the Renaissance. And such beautiful images – the angel kneeling, Mary surprised and a little overwhelmed by what the angel is asking.
If you walk down to the first floor of the museum, to the American galleries, you’ll find a large painting of the Annunciation which was done in 1898 by an African-American painter named Henry Tanner. In this painting, the model for Mary is a 12-year-old Palestinian girl, who looks up with a sense of wonder at an angel which appears only as a bright shining light in the room.
The story of the Annunciation is the story of Mary’s saying “yes” to bearing the Christ child in her womb. Mary was most likely young, not unlike the model in the Tanner painting, and what must it have been like to hear those words from an angel? There is a poem by Denise Levertov called “Annunciation” in which the poet describes the scene of the angel, hovering in the room, meeting Mary, and the poet goes on to write “But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage. The engendering spirit did not enter her without consent. God waited. She was free to accept or refuse, choice integral to humanness.”
I like that image of Mary as one who was not meek, but as one who in fact possessed great courage in her response to the angel, in her “yes” to whatever God might have in store for her. Not long after this story in Luke’s gospel, Mary “sets out” through the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Not an easy journey to make in first century Palestine. I also like the image of a God who does not coerce, but who waits for our freedom of response, waits for a way to enter into our lives.
Blessings to all as we prepare for Christmas.