Annunciation

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.”