Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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 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.