El Greco

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.

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.