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?
Like the message. Like the contrast with the visuals.
The Fra Angelico Annunciation is one of the most beautiful paintings in the world. But Mary is not just physically impregnated. Mary says Yes because she conceives of the Christ in her heart and soul. Her Yes is her life–not just the thought of a moment: “My soul doth magnify the Lord/And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” If we all magnified the Lord in our being and life, we would be not only intellectually and abstractly, but bodily conceiving Jesus in grace and chastity; and our bodies would really become temples of the Lord not so that we were prudes but so that we were kind and compassionate, just and honorable. Panaghia, the All-Holy, or the Virgin Mary, is so gentle and sweet. She is the best guide to Jesus. She is above all rational.
Maria, I love this. Beautifully said.
And yet, I find that whenever I say YES to life, terrified often, it Always works out well! It’s the cringing “No’s” that leave me unsafe, unsatisfied. Oh, but it takes courage.
Yes! This is true for me as well.
Dear Deborah, Your persuasive and charming meditation on the “tranquility” in which so many artists “clothe” the Virgin Mary as she receives Gabriel’s (literally) transfiguring words remind me of an essay I was asked to write on various Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation. I was surprised to discover that there are quite a few in which she is represented as horrified (cf. Simone Martini’s “Annunciation” panel in the Uffizi,) defensive as if she longs to escape or to thrust Gabriel away (Botticelli’s altarpiece of the “Annunciation”) or — my favorite — so alarmed that she throws her hands up like a cook who’s burned the dinner (Lorenzo Lotto, ca. 1534) while a black cat — the devil? — in the foreground is similarly appalled. And then there is Garofolo’s already pregnant Mary who seems to say “Are you kidding?” And how about all the many visions of Gabriel from meek priest to child to athlete cleaving the skies with his sword-like lily! We attended the Mary exhibit at the Museum of Women in the Arts yesterday. People were rubbing the paintings & then blessing themselves as though the art was magical.
Thank you for all your fine meditations. sermons & homilies which are themselves blessings!