Advent, Week 4
By Melody Kroeger
In the late 15th century, the gifted Italian Renaissance master Sandro Bottecelli, commissioned by the Church, painted the Annunciation scene. His painting, hanging in the main gallery in the Uffizi in Florence, is so powerful and beautiful that, 600 years later, people still travel across the world to see it.
Bottecelli’s painting is unique because it captures, at least for me, that moment of hesitation – between Gabriel’s announcement and Mary’s acceptance.
The angel, Gabriel, dressed in resplendent red robes, has already said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”. Mary backs away from the angel to the right of the canvas, her body is twisted away from Gabriel, as if she could escape through the frame. But her eyes are downcast and only her face is composed and calm. The energy in the painting surges from the crouching Gabriel up to the golden halo already encircling Mary’s head. Her hands are both held up as if to stop time – to ponder the angel’s news while the angel crowds her against the wall – his eyes staring intently at Mary’s face. The viewer, if not familiar with Luke’s gospel, is left to wonder how the young woman will respond. Botticelli doesn’t tell us.
It is the 4th Sunday of Advent and our readings focus, most particularly, on Mary. The idea of Mary – mild and meek, obedient and pure – has long captured the imaginations of artists, musicians, story tellers, and writers. But what the Bible does actually say about Mary is tantalizingly brief.
Moreover, layers of distance are added by the two thousand year gap in time and in culture between the original meaning of Luke’s gospel – including the precise translation from ancient Greek – and the meaning of Mary’s role in the Annunciation acquired in our Christian story through translation and interpretation. Her story has continually taken on new meanings in the course of the history of our church – meanings that have sometimes been the consequence of what scripture does not say as much as of what it does.
Lutheran theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, wrote, “You could copy on an 8×11 sheet of paper everything there is about Mary in the New Testament.” Indeed, we know a lot more about Russell Wilson – where and when he was born, where he went to school, how much he is paid, his completed pass statistics and yards rushing…and yet of this young woman, who has been portrayed in more art and music than any other women in history – we know almost nothing. We are left, perhaps intentionally so, with our imaginations.
What is in the Bible about Mary?
In Luke’s gospel, her name appears first in our readings today: “…the angel Gabriel was sent by God…to a virgin engaged to a man …of the house of David. The virgin’s, name was Mary.” (Lk 1:26-27)
We don’t know, and Scripture does not tell us, the form in which the angel appeared to Mary. He may have spoken to her in a dream. He may have appeared to Mary as the crouching insistent angel in Botticelli’s masterpiece. Luke does tell us that Gabriel told Mary “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
The first line in the familiar prayer, taught to most Catholic school children:
Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with you
is drawn from the King James translation of the gospel of Luke. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07110b.htm
But the angel Gabriel does not stop there, he continues: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”
Luke does not say if Mary is struck at all by this curious announcement, that she, a young woman from Nazareth, has found favor with God. Nor does Luke tell us if Mary hesitated, as Botticelli suggests. Rather, Luke tells us that Mary simply says “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Engagement, according to those who study ancient Jewish society, was the first step in a two-step marriage process. It was a legally binding agreement between two families. It gave the young man, Joseph, marital rights over the daughter, Mary, in the sense that any involvement with another man could be punished as adultery. The punishment for an adulterer, set forth in the book of Leviticus, was instant and complete exile from the community – not just Mary but her entire family as well. (Lev 18) The consequences of Gabriel’s announcement can hardly be overstated. Absolute adherence to Jewish law determined who was clean and who was unclean – who belonged to the community and who did not.
After the engagement was announced, Mary would been expected to live with her parents for about a year, followed by a formal transfer of the young girl from her father’s control to the control of her husband. Romantic love was not recognized as a factor in family arrangement. In any case, Mary was probably too young to exercise much independent judgment – not that anyone in the ancient world would have listened or paid heed to the concerns of a female. Unlike the mature young woman, Botticelli painted, obviously modeled on someone from high Florentine society, Luke’s Mary is probably 12 or 13 years old and poor, without any social status.
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary could just as well have said “Why me?”
The favor that Gabriel announces that Mary found with God is not for her alone; it is – or will be – for the great benefit of her people – we believe for the great benefit of all people. To be chosen for a special role in bringing forth and fulfilling God’s saving work is a great honor!
Ancient Mediterranean culture was based upon power which brought privilege. A person of power and status would become a patron through bestowing favors on clients, who, in return will support and honor their patron. Michelangelo, Raphael, Brunelleschi and Botticelli were all clients of the patron Church and honored their benefactors through art and architecture, elaborate altarpieces, music and sculpture.
God was also understood as a patron who bestowed God’s favors on clients. But unlike human patrons, God does not select people for special favor based upon what they can supply in turn. God chooses the fearful and meek, the lowly and poor to participate with God in birthing the kingdom. In human affairs, Mary is not favored. But God is not governed by human affairs. God bestowed favor on Mary, who is female and young in a society that honors males and elders, a girl who praised God in our canticle today identifying herself as God’s “servant” who dwells among the “lowly, hungry, and poor”. (Lk 1:48-53)
God’s favor required her to be profoundly countercultural, to trust an inner vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her.
Mary’s favored status led her straight from scandal to danger to the heart break of her son’s crucifixion. Mary might have done well to ask “Why me?” – to twist away from Gabriel and raise her arms out in protest. But instead, she believes the words being spoken to her. God’s word is God’s decision. God’s word is also God’s act – that which God promises, God is able also to perform. Mary accepts the divine destiny and her role in it and willingly participates with God’s purpose for her. Instead of asking “Why me,” Mary replies “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Scripture gives us several more brief glimpses of Mary. There is a rebuke in Jesus’ words to her at the Temple when he was just 12 – about the age Mary was when she replied “yes” to God. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49) Those words must have stung his mother’s heart – sting any mother’s heart – even as we, the readers, realize that Mary could not fully understand her Son.
The years of Jesus’ public ministry must have been profoundly painful and confusing for Mary – a time of alternating pride and fear, alternating faith and doubt. But the most difficult burden Mary had to bear was the rapid growth of Jesus’ enemies, which eventually led to the cross. It is there that Mary must have known the deep despair of one who feels that the promises of God have failed. She who had received the words of Gabriel “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end” now beheld her child, lifeless on the cross.
When we limit ourselves to the serene images of an obedient Mary popular with artists and sometimes the teaching of the church, we fall short of the mark. The danger in idealizing Mary’s consent is that it distorts her humanity, and keeps her human story at arm’s length from ours. For better or for worse, it is generally not in our best interest to identify with a person who leaps headlong into obedience. We relate better to the one who struggles, to the one whose “yes” is cautious and ambivalent – to the one who asks “Why me”. Because for all we know – or don’t know – about Mary, we understand deep in our core that her “yes” demanded a degree of courage that should make us tremble. Let’s not deceive ourselves: it is no benign gentle thing to be favored of God.
Why Mary? Why us?
We are all faced with a decision when God calls us and we usually hesitate and wonder if we can say “yes” and allow God to do what from our human point of view seems impossible. But let us remember that when God calls us God also gives us grace.
This is why Botticelli’s painting resonates so deeply with me and I suspect with so many other people. Botticelli captures Mary at that moment of hesitation – that moment between call and consent when anything is indeed possible for God. The master painter left us with a clue as to Mary’s decision. He encircled her head with a halo – a symbol of God’s grace and favor – a sign to us that Mary’s “yes” whispered to God changed the world then and continues to change our world now.