When I was in high school, my family friends, whom I’ll call the Stephensons, learned that they were going to have a child. The pregnancy was not only unexpected, but late: their other two children were almost finished with high school. The Stephensons were quite worried about how to tell their nearly-grown sons that they were going to have a sibling, so they plotted out an elaborate speech. When the boys were sitting in front of them, however, it all flew out of their minds, and Mrs. Stephenson blurted out, “I’m pregnant, so you two are going to have to share a room, and the dog’s got to go.”
Their older son had hiccups for two weeks.
How do you tell good news? How do you tell news that is deeply ambivalent? Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel, whose name means “God is my Strength,” comes to the Virgin Mary and shatters her life with the news that she has been chosen to bear a son to God Most High. And Mary gasps a bit, and temporizes, asking, “How can this be, since I have not known a man?” And Gabriel explains that she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, and Mary thinks and bows her head and consents — perhaps the most important “yes” in all of time.
Looking at the images artists have rendered, what strikes me is the preternatural calm with which they infuse the scene. If someone came and told me I was pregnant, just out of the blue, I would not be calm. I would feel shock, rage, terror, anguish, fear, hope — so many emotions all at once that the complexity might well make me speechless. And yet, the artists show Mary as clothed in tranquility.
Perhaps they are looking backward from the point of view of that “yes.” There is a time in each our lives (and often more than one) when what seems to be our destiny finds us, and we stand still in wonder and in fear, knowing that if we decline this moment, our true life will elude us forever.
Perhaps that is the point of all our practices: to make us ready, just that one time, to spring up and run in the direction of the person God is asking us to be, all those times of petty practice, the numbing repetition, shaping the courage in our hearts for the time we really need it, giving us grace to speak Mary’s “yes,” even when the one who is asking is God Most High.
Adrienne Rich writes,
No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
Make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy become one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down in the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
How would your life need to change for you to seize that daring, that courage, to consent that deeply?