Annunciation

Acceptance with Joy

 

“Look,” says the prophet, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” What a strange promise! How could the birth of a child be a gift for a troubled world?

This is the kind of promise that Mary received from the Angel Gabriel. And it is the kind of promise that every one of us receives when we are called to acknowledge and accept that same gift. During this Advent season we have reflected on how there are a number of aspects of our response to God’s call, and to the promise of God’s gift to us.

Fear can often be our first reaction, followed then by wonder and uncertainty about the fit between God’s promise and our own suitability for receiving it. By attentiveness to God’s Grace, our uncertainty can be transformed into a humility ~ a humility that is willing to accept the Word of Promise and the Call to receive it. And if we come that far, if we are willing to believe and remain attentive, we may experience a wonderful moment. It is in Mary’s fourth response to God’s Word of Call. It is quite simply, Joy! There is no other word for it. Both Mary and Joseph, each in their own way, accept the unlikely and unexpected word of promise. And by accepting and receiving God’s will for what it is, they find joy.

Over the course of this Advent, I have shared with you four images of the Annunciation to Mary of the promised gift of a child ~ a child who would be God with us. In the image above, El Greco beautifully captures the sublime quality of the moment. Having accepted God’s Word in humility, Mary’s eyes and her whole being are uplifted up to receive the message. Her up-turned hand says it all! The gilded and hovering angel points upward, in the direction where all this is supposed to go, to the realm of Spirit. This is where the Lord will ascend through his Resurrection, taking us and our humanity with him into the very being of God.

Joy may not be the defining feature of our lives today. Yet, we can find the fullness of joy in the gift we celebrate this week. For we receive a gift whose meaning and value we can never fully anticipate in advance.

To this gift, Mary says “Yes!” And, with her, we can say, “yes,” as well. Yes to God’s Word that comes to us as both promise and call – a promise that he will be with us always, as we accept him for who He really is. And, a call for us to become new persons in him. For in him we find a spiritual maturity that this world can never give.

In raising our hearts in assent to God’s promises, and by receiving God’s call to be transformed by the Spirit, we grow. We grow into that quiet joy which was Mary’s, instilled by the Angel’s visit. Behold – a virgin has conceived, and has borne a Son, and we call his name Immanuel – for God is with us!

 

The image above is of El Greco’s Annunciation (1600). This post is based on my homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Attentive Openness

 

The spirit of attentive openness is at the heart of the third aspect of Mary’s response to God’s call through the Angel Gabriel. God’s call often challenges us to live in a different way; or try and be a different person, especially in our relationships with our family, our friends and those with whom we work. Receiving this call, we can react at first in fear at what this call will mean in practice. We can also respond with uncertainty, wondering about our worthiness or suitability for what God may have in mind for us.

But we can also see that —in faith— we are able to go into the heart of our fear, and find God’s power. Receiving God’s grace, we may move beyond relying on our own strength, and not depend upon our estimate of our own abilities and worthiness for what God may have in mind. And we can choose to respond to God’s gracious invitation into the Spirit’s redeeming work, just as Mary did, by saying, “Yes!” As John Lennon so simply captured the spirit of it, in the words of his famous song, “Let it be!” As Mary said to God through the Angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy Word.”

This is the spirit of Mary’s response to the message of the angel as portrayed in the third image I am sharing with you this Advent ~ Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, pictured above. The artist has skillfully juxtaposed a traditional painted figure onto a contemporary scene. We see a simplicity and spirit of humility in Mary’s posture, as she kneels in her plain gown. In the plain ‘bed-sit’ room in which she prays, we notice her uplifted eyes. They are now focused on the divine source of the message she is receiving.

Attentiveness is key to meaningful perception, just as we find in the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Advent. John sends his disciples to Jesus with what should be our most persistent question ~ “are you the One?” ‘Are you the One for whom we are looking, and whom we are awaiting?’ Notice Jesus’ response: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” For they only hear and see if they are attentive. This is one reason why the Church sets aside this season of Advent ~ to encourage our attentiveness, so that we can hear and see, and then accept God’s Word to us.

“Let it be as God would have it.” Let things be as God wills. Let God be God! Perhaps nothing will be so hard in our lives, as to say those words in faith and in humility. Our pride objects! Our desire to be at the center of reality intrudes. But to say, “Let it be…,” in faith and in humility, is to return to the Garden of Creation Grace. And it is also to begin to live forward into the fullness of the Kingdom, as God would have things be.

 

The image above is a detail of Trygve Skogrand’s photo-collage, Bedsit Annunciation (an image I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

God’s Word of Hope

 

Remember God’s call to Moses, through the burning bush. Remember God’s call to Isaiah in the Temple. And remember God’s call to Jeremiah. In each of these encounters, when a divine invitation and word of hope comes to those who would become prophets, they react in a similar way. Each of them responds with fear, just like the reaction we see in Simone Martini’s Annunciation painting of Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel (featured in my prior blog post). Yet, in these call passages we see Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah respond in a second way: each of them is overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness at being called to serve the Lord. For in our hearts and our minds, we as God’s people do not always hear or receive what the Lord intends to be a word of hope as a hopeful message.

During this season of Advent I am once again reflecting on four Annunciation paintings. Here, I invite you to consider Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of the angel’s visitation to Mary, calling her to be a servant in God’s ongoing work of redemption. Observe Mary’s response to the angel and its contrast with Simone Martini’s painting (featured in my prior posting). In Martini’s Annunciation, we see an image portraying fear – Mary clutching the top of her cloak turning away from the angel and yet not able to take her eyes off the divine messenger. In Rossetti’s Annunciation (above), we see Mary looking in a different direction. Her gaze is off into the middle distance, and we can tell that she is not looking at anything in particular, ‘out there.’ Instead, she is looking within.

When encountering the holiness, righteous and purity of God, we may experience not only fear about change that might lie ahead. Very likely we will also feel a sense of our own unworthiness. Sensing the glory of God, we will become more aware of what fall’s short of God’s glory within us. When the Spirit invites us to experience transformation back into God’s own likeness, we are called to face and then set aside all that stands in the way of this positive change. In the Gospels we learn how God’s Word came through John the Baptizer’s ministry as a call to repent. We hear the same call to turn toward renewal in our own day.

Notice what we see in the angel’s hand. When inviting Mary to bear the Word of God for the sake of the world, the angel holds lilies. Lilies are a sign of the resurrection. We also see the prominent red sash that Mary may have been stitching. It bears an image of the same lilies, along with a vine that may recall the ‘Tree of Jesse’ motif (inspired by Isaiah 11). But here they are set against a red background – a sign of the passion that lies ahead. This suggests the path of suffering which the ‘Son of Man’ must walk so that we might experience the restoration and transformation of our fallen nature in his likeness.

 

The image above is a detail of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of an Unexpected Invitation

 

Advent is the perfect season for reflecting on how God’s Spirit invites us to go to a new place spiritually for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Since there is no question that this will happen, the only question is how it will happen, and how we will respond when it does.

This is the season when we focus on how God’s Kingdom comes into the world. We look back to the earthly kingdom of Israel, and her difficulty fulfilling her spiritual vocation. We also look back to the promised first coming of the Messiah, who would bring God’s Kingdom into the world with new power. And during Advent, we also look forward, to the Messiah’s return in glory. But here is a crucial fact about the first coming of the Messiah: if there had been no Mary, there would have been no Jesus. In order for God’s great “YES” to us in Jesus to become manifest, Mary had to say “Yes” to God.

God’s call to Mary embodies God’s holiness and righteousness. In our encounter with this, everything in us that is less than godly undergoes judgment. The bright light of God’s glory throws into relief all the dark corners of the world ~ and all the dark corners in our lives. The purity of God shows up all that is less than pure.

Our reaction to this may involve at least one thing: fear! God’s call comes to us as Good News. And yet, we experience God’s call for us to become a new person and do new things as a fearful invitation. For me, it has involved a call to consider moving away from one beloved church and congregation to what I could only hope would be another. For both you and for me, it may be a call to go and speak to someone with whom we have a disagreement, or to reconcile with someone whom we have failed to forgive. When God calls us to new life, by inviting us to do something like this, our first reaction is often fear. We think of all the things we are afraid might happen: like losing the security of a familiar home and community; or setting aside our own pride and sense of right; and opening ourselves in vulnerability to being hurt by another person.

In this detail of Simone Martini’s Annunciation, we see what may have been Mary’s first response to the presence of the holy Angel. Gabriel comes to her sharing God’s good news about the child she will bear, who will bring salvation for the world. And Mary draws back in fear at this message, frightened about what it might mean for her and her life. We all know the end of the story, how it all turned out for good. But in that moment, as it often is for us, God’s call probably had a frightening aspect to it. Because a change to something always means a change from something else, from where we started.

Martini’s painting reminds me of spiritual advice I received years ago ~ spiritual advice that gave me the courage to leave a tenured faculty position at one of our seminaries and return to parish ministry. The prospect of this change, for which I had a sense of call, was frightening. And the good advice I received was this: when you go toward the heart of your fear in faith, God will meet you there with power.

We know that this is what Mary did. For she moved beyond her reaction to the seeming strangeness of the Angel’s greeting, not knowing what it meant. She was then open to embracing the message and all that it would entail for her ~ and for the world.

 

The image above is a detail of Simone Martini’s painting, The Annunciation (a painting I have shared before). This post is based on my homily for the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of an Invitation

 

 

 

 

These four Annunciation paintings can help us grow into the reality of our response to the embodied and loving Word of God. I have chosen them in relation to the call we have accepted in Baptism. And so I focus on four moments recorded by, or implied within, Like’s Gospel account of the Annunciation to Mary. The four moments are these: the experience of being Apprehensive; the prompted experience of being Introspective; our chosen response in then being Attentive; and finally, God’s desire for us to be Accepting with joy.

I remember when the call to accept Baptism came to me. I was a secular-minded art student, and not-very-interested in acknowledging any form of ‘lordship’ other than my own. But my reaction and perceptions then were certainly not unique to me. Indeed, I have come to see how my at first halting and reluctant response to God’s gracious invitation was not distinctive at all. A great insight about sin is that —for us— our sins are never very original! Likewise, in responding to grace, none of us is ever alone on our path as we engage God’s call. Our first reaction as adults, to a consciously-perceived divine overture, is often apprehensiveness. We are apprehensive about losing our preferred autonomy, and having our usual safe boundaries crossed. Simone Martini’s Annunciation beautifully captures this moment. Like Mary, we ask: ‘What is this Word that comes to me? What is this message? What is its import, especially in terms of what may be expected of me?’ Better be safe than sorry is often our reaction, not only to fallen human invitations, but also to God’s beautiful holy beckoning.

We have become hardened to glimpses of light, and to touches of grace. And so, second, if we aren’t so hardened, we may be open at least to ponder a facet or two of God’s loving invitation coming to us. This creates an opportunity for introspection, a moment well-expressed in Rossetti’s Annunciation. And to the extent that we are open, our hearts and minds are hit by a divine initiative that could not possibly have been expected. Feeling its impact, we must look within. Do I stand on my own? Am I my own Lord? Can I determine my future, however limited or large? Or, have I met my match? And… if so, how do I respond rightly. This is the moment of introspection, writ large.

Third, if our Lord has managed to capture our attention, are we open? Are we willing to be vulnerable to the divine presence? Every Christian, and especially every baptized adult must ask her or himself this question. Skogrand’s Bedsit Annunciation provides an evocative image of the moment. Our old Episcopalian assumptions about automatic Baptism soon after birth, with Confirmation expected around age 12 or 13, have diminished the spiritual life of our churches, as well as our experience of the sacraments. Baptism, Confirmation and also Ordination, are not station-markers. They do not provide us with graduation certificates exempting us from further formation, or from continuing repentance, renewal and transformation. And so, we must remain attentive!

Yet, to be dutifully and spiritually attentive to divine initiatives, and God’s personal calling in our lives, is not enough. To be alive in Christ is something rather different from sitting in the audience at a public event. Our Lord challenges us to be more than attentive, and more than enthusiastically approving of what we behold around us. We are, indeed, called to be engaged —engaged so that we are touched by joy— and not simply persons who respond with obedience. The Jesus who comes to us personally and in community is the Jesus who summons our highest and best response. El Greco’s Annunciation captures this truth: We respond best when joyfully we accept abounding grace, in all its beauty.

 

This post is based upon my homily offered in honor of our seminarian, Kellan Day, and her ordination to the diaconate. The four images above are these: Simone Martini, Annunciation; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Annunciation; Trygve Skogrand, Bedsit Annunciation; El Greco, Annunciation. My ordination homily may be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Annunciation

Simone_Martini_Annunciation_Detail

Today we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation to Mary. The angel of God brought her “good news” ~ but news she could hardly have understood at the time. She would bear a child, who would be called Son of the Most High. I have always loved Annunciation paintings, and this one by Simone Martini (from 1333), in particular.

When the angel appeared to Mary, she encountered God’s holiness and righteousness. Like so many times in history, God’s presence pushes everything else into clarity. The bright light of Glory throws into relief all the dark places in the world – all the hidden corners of our lives. We usually react to this with disquiet and concern. We hear that God’s word comes as Good News. And yet we experience God’s call to become a new person, or do a new thing, as a fearful invitation!

For me, it has been a call to move from one beloved congregation to what I could only hope would be another. For both you and me, it will be a call to speak to someone with whom we have a misunderstanding, or forgive someone whom we have failed to forgive. When God calls us to new life, we are often afraid. We think of what we fear might happen: like losing a familiar home and community; or setting aside our pride, and opening ourselves to being hurt again.

Look at how Martini portrays Mary’s response to the angel! Gabriel visits her with holy news about the child she will bear, who will bring salvation to the world. Mary draws back from his message, fearful about what it might mean. We know it turns out for good. But at first, God’s call can frighten us. A change to something new, always means a change from where we started.

The scene reminds me of spiritual advice I received years ago – advice that helped me be willing to leave a tenured seminary position and return to parish ministry. I had a sense of call, but the prospect of this change was frightening. A wise friend said to me, “when you go toward the heart of your fear in faith, God will always meet you there with power.”