February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
December 25, 2020
In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we find the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26–38). It is an unusual story, to say the very least. Very few of us have experienced a visit from an angel, and we may have trouble imagining what Mary’s experience was like. We tend to live without expecting that God comes to us. Yet this story of the messenger from God coming to Nazareth invites us to follow Mary and ponder what it means that God is coming. In accepting this invitation, we follow believers throughout Christian history who have explored the meaning of the coming of God through the exchange of Gabriel and Mary.
As the account begins, the angel Gabriel arrives at Mary’s house in Nazareth. Luke tells us that Mary is a young woman, engaged but not yet married to Joseph. The angel greets her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28 NASB). In Luke, we read that Mary was perplexed by this greeting. She wondered what kind of greeting this might be. And that seems like the appropriate response—when an angel comes to visit, it is clearly a holy moment, a holy yet unsettling moment.
Other biblical accounts of the appearances of messengers from God are also both holy and unsettling. In Exodus 3, an angel of the Lord appears to Moses in the flames of a fiery bush that is not consumed by the fire. Holy but unsettling. In Judges 6, an angel appears to the farmer Gideon, calling him into divine service as a military leader for Israel in a time that the nation was regularly raided by foreign tribes who stole livestock and crops. A divine call but unsettling. The angel of the Lord appears to John and gives him a vision of the church victorious, and we read about John’s vision as the strange text called the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John. It’s a holy moment, but John is so unsettled that he falls over.
When an angel shows up, there is good reason to be perplexed, to wonder at the appearance of a messenger sent from God. Mary’s natural trepidation concerning the arrival of Gabriel creates a short pause in this story—she helps us to slow down and notice this holy, unsettling moment. She allows us to draw alongside her and to acknowledge the quality of this moment, to get a handle on this experience.
Then the angel continues, giving her more details about what kind of a commission God is giving to her:
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:30–33)
Like other prophets before her, Mary reacts with disbelief to this announcement. Her question creates another pause in the story. Like the prophets before her, she wonders at her assignment. Moses told the angel he could not speak to Pharaoh because he stuttered (Exod. 4:10). Gideon reminded the angel that Israel was overrun with oppressors (Judg. 6:13). John reminded the angel that he was imprisoned on Patmos (Rev. 1:9). Mary questions whether this commission seems at all likely. In her words, “How can this be? Since I am a virgin” (Luke 1:34). She does not yet live with a man, and a child seems humanly impossible.
So the angel explains: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. . . . For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:35–37). He gives her a sign that this is possible: her cousin Elizabeth who was barren and past childbearing age is pregnant. And then Mary consents: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). She takes on this grand task from God.
The exchange between Gabriel and Mary has been imagined by artists numerous times. They are interpreters of Luke’s word. I have chosen four artists to help me think through the character of the pauses in the narrative.1
The first artist is Fra Angelico, who painted frescoes of the annunciation around 1445.2 The frescoes are in the Convent of Marco in Florence, Italy. These frescoes catch the pauses in the conversation very well. As I consider the frescoes, I note that Gabriel, the divine figure, is in many ways like Mary, the human figure. There is a strong similarity between them—the divine is not startling or strange, except perhaps for his extravagant wings. The figures are about the same size, and the angel has a human body. Their hair is similar. Mary seems somewhat dumbfounded upon seeing Gabriel—she seems to be protecting herself with her hands—but her surprise must be at the commission itself because the angel is not particularly strange.
Then I also notice that when the angel Gabriel comes to the porch where Mary is sitting, the creature keeps his distance. The divine is respectful of the human. There is a space between them, and this space is full of light, illuminating Mary. I am no art critic, but as a viewer, I am drawn into the painting because of the lighted space between Mary and Gabriel. Eventually, I look away from the light and examine other parts of the painting, but I initially join the scene in the lighted space between the two figures.
Fra Angelico painted this scene of the annunciation several times in the convent. In one, Mary holds a book. When the angel comes, he interrupts her reading the word, which is the artist’s witness that Jesus is the Word whom Mary will bear. Yet in each fresco, Fra Angelico replicated the continuity between the figures and the lighted space between them.
A second example more vividly catches Mary’s hesitation. It was painted by Lorenzo Lotto around 1534 and is now in a museum in Recanati, Italy.3 In this painting, Mary turns away from the angel in surprise. The angel is painted with a more aggressive stance. In darkness behind Mary is her undisturbed bed—she is a virgin. The angel has come to her in her private space. Lotto also portrays Mary as reading when the angel arrives. The cat in the image may suggest domesticity to us, but some commentators on the painting suggest it as a symbol of evil departing the scene. We can see in Mary’s face that she is startled, perhaps as she comes to terms with the angel’s request. Again, the lighted space between Mary and Gabriel draws us into the center of the picture, and then our eyes explore the other parts of the picture, including the divine figure overseeing the visit.
The annunciation also interests more recent artists. My third example was created by the American Christian sculptor Theodore Prescott in the 1970s.4 The Mary sculpture is life-size, and Gabriel is created with a neon light. The figures are quite different, and the space between them is not open or lighted, as in the earlier paintings. The red neon light suggests the image of the angelic figure, but it doesn’t light up the space. Where the earlier paintings had an airy space between Mary and Gabriel, the between-space in this one is filled with a table and bread. The dim light is cast on Mary, and we are drawn toward her; we come to this story from her perspective. In this piece, Prescott catches Mary’s perplexity. She seems to be saying, “Who me?” Her gesture communicates less self-protection and more disbelief that this task could be for her.
The last image that has captured my interest in the context of this scene is from the artist James He Qi who was born in China and now lives in California.5 He Qi has won numerous awards for his religious art, and I am drawn to the vibrancy of his paintings—both his colors and his figures. In his painting of the annunciation, which was likely painted in the last twenty years, the angel seems to be leaning over the top of a fence and speaking to Mary as she plays a musical instrument in her garden. Like the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings, the space between the two is filled with light. And there is continuity in how the woman and the angel are portrayed. This angel is not an extraterrestrial being, like Prescott’s neon figure.
But the angel’s stance is curious. With an upraised finger, the tone seems to be more admonishment than gentle interruption, like in Fra Angelico’s interpretation, or startling announcement, like in Lotto’s. The angel is standing very close to Mary. The lighted space between them is confined, not open as in the earlier paintings. Mary pauses from her music to listen. Her flute is still near her mouth.
Mary’s story invites us to imagine a divine space, preparing us for the divine event of Christmas. Each of these four artworks interprets this story of Mary and Gabriel in different ways and prompts us to imagine the coming of God in different ways. They guide us to think about how God comes to us. Our capacity to imagine this coming depends on how we imagine the space between the human and the divine. Is it filled with light or darkness? Is it filled with our personal effects, a bed or a book? Perhaps a worktable? Does the table have bread? What kind of bread is this? Is there a fence? Is the space of encounter an open capacious space or a confined one?
And what is the face of God like? Does God come in the form of a creature like you and me? Or is the divine quite different? Does the divine word startle us? Make us feel self-protective? Or perhaps we react in disbelief. Are we interrupted? How does the coming of God transform what we were doing when God arrived? Do we stop reading the word to become the bearer of the Word? If we are creating music, do we take up our flutes immediately again?
Luke’s story invites us to pause with Mary.
We are invited to think again about how God comes to us. We join Mary’s holy but unsettling moment to hone our capacity to recognize the divine when it appears. When God comes to us as a child, the son of a virgin, God is disrupting our categories. Likewise, the art works unsettle our typical responses to Mary’s story that we have heard so many times. The artists invite us to reconsider how we hear God and whether we too will move toward God as Mary did. May it be that in the end, whether in darkness or light, in the common things or the unexpected, we will also follow Mary and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Jo-Ann Badley is the dean of the Faculty of Theology at Ambrose University where she also teaches New Testament and hermeneutics. She is a Protestant actively involved in ecumenical dialogue. She has been intrigued by Mary for twenty-five years.