You may want to read Luke 1:26-55 before reading this post.
You may not think of yourself as an artist, but if a little boy asked you to draw him a picture of Mary, you wouldn’t refuse, would you? You’d find a piece of paper and a pencil and start drawing.
What scene would you choose? A young woman kneeling beside a baby with lots of hay and barn animals around? Or a woman standing at the foot of the cross, bent by grief? Or a young woman in conversation with an angel?
When you draw a picture of Mary, you don’t start from scratch; for centuries, artists have developed scenes from the gospels, and the annunciation – Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel – has long been a favorite. The angel usually stands or kneels on the left, facing Mary who is standing or sitting on the right. Often there’s a white lily in the picture, and Mary is shown with a book in her hand, one finger between the pages, as if the angel interrupted her while reading. Of course we don’t know what Mary was doing when Gabriel came to her, Luke doesn’t tell us – she may have been doing the laundry or playing with a little lamb; we don’t know.
What clothes does she wear in your drawing? Do you go through the junk drawer in the kitchen to find red for her rose-colored dress, blue for her royal robe, and yellow for a touch of gold here and there? Or do you stick with your No. 2 pencil and give her a simple long dress with some sort of veil over her head?
When you draw a picture of Mary, you don’t start from scratch because your head is full of pictures of her. If all you had were Luke’s story, perhaps you would draw a picture of a teenage girl sitting on her bed, in a room with clothes on the floor and empty cereal bowls on the desk.
What look do you see on her face? The old masters show her with expressions ranging from wide-eyed fear to questioning curiosity and unruffeled serenity. You may decide that facial expressions and drawing an angel that doesn’t look like another girl only with wings, add too many difficult details to your picture – and you end up drawing a young mother gazing lovingly at her newborn baby, which is probably what the little boy wanted to watch you draw anyway.
The annunciation is a scene in an unfolding story that begins in the days of King Herod of Judea, or rather a story as old as time that is about to begin anew. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a small town in Galilee no one had ever heard of, to take a message to a young woman named Mary. The angel’s words sound very matter of fact: The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God. You will conceive and you will bear a son. You will name him Jesus. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
This is the moment where I see Mary raise a hand in a gesture of hesitation, like saying, “Hold on, wait a minute, you lost me when you said I would conceive – how exactly is this supposed to come about? I am a virgin.” The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her – a response that certainly raises more questions than it answers.
How long will she ponder the angel’s words? The atmosphere between them is charged with the history of God and God’s people: the promise to Abraham, the promises to Moses and David, the promises to the people in exile. There is fear in the room, perhaps a flicker of hope and a sense of expectation that is almost too much to bear. Mary is much perplexed, but the angel isn’t a picture of calmness either, at least in Frederick Buechner’s imagination:
She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with the message to give her, and he gave it … As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 39
The promises of old, the whole future of creation hanging on the answer of a girl. What was it about her that God chose her? We don’t know. All we do know about her is that she was a young woman, engaged to a man named Joseph, living in the rural backwater of Galilee. Not a person of privilege or power, but nevertheless one favored by God. God chose her to be part of the drama of salvation and she could have said no, but she didn’t: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
In my late teens and twenties, I traveled to Florence in Italy several times. I stayed with a friend who had her studio there, and I enjoyed walking through the city, visiting plazas, gardens, churches, and museums. I was in love with the renaissance, you might say. No matter what else I did on a visit – borrow a car to drive to San Gimigniano or tour a winery in Montalcino – I always spent a couple of hours at the monastery of San Marco.
The cells on the second floor still look very much the same as they did in the 15th century when Fra Angelico painted the walls with amazing frescoes of biblical scenes, most famous among them The Annunciation.
In one of the cells, there's another, remarkably simple rendition of that scene: you see Gabriel on the left looking at Mary on the right, who is kneeling on a wooden bench. Nothing in the painting clearly indicates what has or hasn’t been said between the two; they look at one another, both holding their arms close to their chests, both with apprehensive expressions in their faces. I like to think of the picture as a snapshot taken at the moment right after the angel has spoken: this angel didn’t just come to deliver a message and return to heaven. This angel is waiting for Mary’s answer. The promises of old, the whole future of creation hanging on the answer of a girl. It is easy to imagine sun and moon and stars standing still and all the angels in heaven waiting in breathless suspense. God had chosen her, an ordinary girl in an ordinary town, for reasons she didn’t understand, to be the mother of one who would be called the Son of God – what would she say? And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
When Fra Angelico painted The Annunciation on the wall of a cell at San Marco, he used perspective and the layout of the room to make it look as if the scene was happening then and there in that very room. The person who prayed and slept in that cell didn’t just have a religious painting on the wall. The painting served and continues to serve as a vivid reminder that we live and pray, work and sleep between God’s promise and call and our own willing response to be part of the drama of salvation.
The Gospel opens with this story not just to tell us something about the miraculous circumstances of Christ’s conception. Luke invites us to read the gospel, listen for the word of God, and respond – with Mary as our model: her receptiveness for the promise of Christ and her courage to follow the divine lead make her the first disciple.
With the birth of Jesus, God has initiated the redemption of humanity and the salvation of the world: the rule of God in Christ is transforming the world into God’s realm. Through the proclamation of the Gospel, God invites us, like Mary to receive the word and be part of God’s mission in the world.
Growing up, I had a part in the annual Christmas pageant for years. I was a sheep and a shepherd, I was an angel and one of the wee three kings, one year I got to play Joseph, a lantern in one hand, a staff in the other – but I never was Mary. I appreciate that the casting directors didn’t ask a little boy to play a girl – the other kids probably would have called me Mary for a few weeks, and I don’t think I would have liked that.
But Luke gives us Mary because he wants us to play her part; he wants us to listen attentively and respond with courage to the call, making room in our lives for the promise of Christ.
The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” The angels know we respond with fear and apprehension to God’s call to give the Word room to grow in us. Mary shows us how to say yes to a life we did not necessarily intend to lead and how to live by a script we didn’t write ourselves.
When you draw a picture of Mary, I suggest that you draw an ordinary young woman from your neighborhood. Everything else is hard to render in a drawing: you can show her surprise, her fear, her hesitation, or her courage, but not all at once. Perhaps you draw her just after she said, “Let it be with me according to your word,” and then you tell the little boy the story of an ordinary girl in an ordinary town who received the word with faith and gave birth to Christ.
Whenever the good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, a message from God comes to ordinary people in ordinary towns: you have found favor with God, you have been graced with the word that calls forth life out of nothing, you have been called to carry Christ in and for the world – and now God and all the host of heaven are waiting, and the world longing for the fullness of God’s realm is waiting, they stand in breathless suspense – waiting for your response.
What will you say? What will you do with this life God is offering you? Will you say, “I’m sorry, I already had other plans for Christmas…”? Or will you say to the angel, not really knowing the script for your part but trusting this word that a world ruled by no other power but the love of God is not only possible but near, will you say to the angel, with courage and humility, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”