Simone Martini

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.