Gabriel’s announcement, understandably, took Mary very much by surprise as we hear in the words recorded in Luke: “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Addressing Mary’s fear, Gabriel elaborated on the news about her conceiving and giving birth.
Then Mary asked the natural question that would be on anybody’s mind: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Indeed, great question. One which I often ponder on monastic retreats when many prayer offices begin with the ringing of the tower bells for the angelus, a time to pray the “Hail, Mary.” I don’t have a particular devotion to the blessed Mother, Mary, so I don’t do much on those occasions with the “Hail, Mary,” but I often am drawn to considering how the Incarnation did in fact come about, and more particularly, at what point did Mary become pregnant?
These are largely idle musings, not unlike, I suppose, wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For Mary’s conceiving by the Holy Spirit persists as mystery. Gabriel’s final words recorded in Luke say it all: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
While we cannot pin down the particulars of how and when of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy, it is important to note the essential features of the story:
- First, is the central role of God’s word in the announcement of good news by the angelic visitor.
- Then, of course, there is the crucial role of the angel. Good news needs to be announced by a messenger – and that’s what angel means in the Greek.
- Next is the indispensability also of Mary, and not just that she is a passive character in the story, but that Mary gives her consent to all of this happening: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Without Mary’s consent, this story would have very unhappy, violent undercurrents.
- Finally, there’s the Holy Spirit working in the inter-relatedness of message, messenger, and the recipient, Mary, of the good news.
- Perhaps the artistic imagination does best when it comes to seeking some greater intelligibility of the mysterious features of the Annunciation.
Take, for example, the very famous 15th Century Merode Altarpiece attributed to Robert Campin from the Netherlands. This work is a major attraction at The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, one of my favorite destinations in the city.
Here are some noteworthy features of this altarpiece painting:
- The angel Gabriel wears a deacon’s stole. One of the main liturgical duties of deacons in some Christian traditions is to read the gospel. That the angel wears the stole of a deacon reinforces the role of the angel as proclaimer of good news.
- Mary reclines with a book in hand – a prayer book, a Bible? Her eyes are riveted on the text revealing the central focus in the Annunciation on God’s word.
- There is also a book on an adjacent table with its pages flipping in the wind, suggestive of the winds of the Holy Spirit, and the role of the Spirit in the Annunciation, the Spirit perhaps emanating from the pages of scripture.
- There’s a single candle on that table, the flame having just been blown out with wisps of smoke emanating from the wick – again, suggestive of the Spirit’s winds and energy.
- Amidst all of this subtle activity, a bright light appears in the region of Mary’s womb, the divine light, perhaps, that would dwell in Mary’s belly to later birth the Word made flesh.
This striking painting highlights the essential features of the Annunciation story, again: the centrality of God’s word, the role of the messenger to proclaim that good word; Mary in reclining, receptive mode; and the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s energies in the room amidst it all.
Do a Google image search for the Merode altarpiece at the Cloisters. Claim such visual meditation as a feature of your devotional engagements during this holy season.
So, that’s the “what” of the Annunciation, even as the questions of “how” and “when” may persist in mystery. Though the “when” may be precisely when all of the central features of the story come together in their intimate inter-relatedness….
The most important question here, though, is not what, how and when, but why. Why did God do all of this? What kind of divine mission in and for the world is this when God impregnates a willing servant in the person of Mary to give birth to the Word, the Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ?
Here’s my take on the “why” that’s at play here. The Annunciation that made possible the Incarnation of God in human flesh literally embodies God entering fully into the mess of humanity and the human condition. It’s an entry into our most sinful state as a species, as creatures created in God’s image, but tainted by our sinful rebellion.
Remember that Mary is also a sinner. Growing up, Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church stood a block away from First Lutheran Church where I was raised. As a kid, I always thought that the Immaculate Conception meant that Jesus was conceived without sin. It was only later in life that I came to understand that the Immaculate Conception was about Mary having been conceived without sin.
To me, this misses the point. Our theology in Lutheran accents does not need Mary to be immaculate. Rather, our theological perspective is enhanced, I believe, by God’s Word through the Spirit entering into Mary’s own sinful flesh. That’s the whole point.
Or as the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
What does this divine entry into sinful things human accomplish? Ultimately our salvation, our share in God’s righteousness, through the death and resurrection of this Word made flesh in Jesus the Christ.
To reinforce this major point, the why of the Annunciation, I turn again to the Merode Altarpiece. A wonderful, perhaps whimsical feature of the painting is this: up in the corner, near a closed clearstory window, a tiny cherub enters the room. The cherub carries a cross and is surrounded by emanations of light. Here’s another lovely moment in the painting that also points to Christ’s death and resurrection: Easter lilies in a pitcher rest on the table alongside the sacred book and the blown-out candle.
There’s still another sign linking the text of Luke’s Annunciation story to the Passion story with its culmination in the resurrection. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, his first word in Luke is recorded as “Greetings.” In the Greek, the word might also appropriately be translated as “Rejoice.”
You may recall my Easter Sunday sermon when I focused on one word in the Matthew account, the same word here in the Greek, “Greetings,” “Rejoice.” It’s the same word that was on the lips of the resurrected Jesus, his first words to a human after the resurrection, which I suggested, and still suggest, summarizes the entire gospel, the good news of God in Christ’s victory over sin and death. The Greek shares the same root word as grace, joy, generosity of spirit, thanksgiving, Eucharist.
So it is that the word that begins it all, concludes it all – good news for rejoicing from beginning to end, from the Annunciation to the resurrection.
Or finally to quote a stanza of the beloved Christmas hymn, “What Child is This.” This stanza also answers the “why” of the Annunciation and the whole Christ event: “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.” (ELW 296, stanza 2)
That about says it all. Amen.
Now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- What in the mystery of the word of God made flesh persists in perplexing you?
- When might you have witnessed God accomplishing seemingly impossible things?