The angel said 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, NRSV]
Of the many artistic representations of the Annunciation, the 1850 piece by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is arguably the most captivating. The reasons are many.
While in many other depictions of this scene we see Mary joyously or at least calmly receiving the news that she will give birth to the Christ child, Rossetti presents Mary shrinking back from the Angel Gabriel in trepidation, almost cowering and recoiling against her bedroom wall.
There is in Rossetti’s portrayal of Mary even a hesitancy, a look of sadness, a hint of fear for what lies ahead in her young life. Now surely we can empathize with her. It is simply too religiously easy to believe, but too practically unreal, that Mary was joyfully prepared for the most outrageous proposal ever in human history. A young maiden, engaged to be married, has just been told that she is honoured by being chosen as the future Mother of God, that she is going to conceive by the sheer power of the Holy Spirit, so that she will bear a child out of wedlock in that ancient and religiously conservative society, and then she spontaneously rejoices over that “marvelous” news? That would be totally unreal.
In Rossetti’s brilliant piece, Mary’s facial expression does not display a ready acquiescence or delight. Instead, we see an almost terrified look on the young Mary after hearing what the angel has just announced to her. She appears troubled and unsettled, as well she might, given her circumstances. Far from being negative, this terrified look adds a great deal of power to Rossetti’s painting. It certainly displays a degree of realism that Christians can resonate with.
There is internal struggle going on here, a mad rush to figure out what all this is about. Even though Luke did not think an extensive narration of the conversation was necessary and thus did not offer one, he did give us the right order of a concise form of the dialogue between Mary and angel Gabriel. So a shocked-Mary plucked up courage to ask, “How can this be…?” She most certainly did not say “yes” before clarifying her human incredulity. Nor did she or could she do so before the angel has given her a “divine” assurance and an explanation of divine origin in all “this”. We must recall that Jesus struggled too, at Gethsemane, even asking for “the cup” to pass him by, and at Golgotha, where he lamented that the Father had “abandoned” him in his moment of greatest need and most excruciating suffering. We wrongly edit out the inevitable process, even the punishing depth, of human struggle at the Annunciation and at Calvary, when we piously accept all too soon Mary’s and Jesus’ obedience. Courage does not mean the absence of fear, just as faith is not equated with the absence of struggle. Human spirit is at its best when it collaborates with God’s Spirit, but not before a very human, and real, struggle. There is more, for that struggle, we must understand, is never one-off. It continues, often in a silent way. Deftly, this is partially captured by St Luke who twice mentions Mary keeping and pondering in her heart the angels’ words to her at the Annunciation [Luke 1:29] and to the shepherds afterwards [Luke 2:19].
The Annunciation is, at its core, a “terrorising” event. “Terrified” would not even begin to describe the havoc the word of the angel must have caused Mary upon the Annunciation. After all, Scriptures say from the start that she was “greatly troubled” [Luke 1:29] even by angel Gabriel’s exalted greeting alone. And Rossetti’s piece is helpful, not least because he slows us down and compels us to read Scriptures meditatively and, by imagination, to place ourselves in this great event in God’s plan of salvation. There, to honour Mary’s human freedom, which too stands at the core of the Creator’s wonderful gift in creation, the least we can do is to imagine how her young head must be spinning as she races to process the angel’s incredible message.
This is what we think it comes down to:
- Just as the Annunciation to Mary is a credit to God, for which humanity ought to be eternally grateful to the Almighty, Mary’s “yes” to God is a credit to Mary, for which humanity ought to be eternally grateful to the Virgin of Nazareth.
- At great cost to herself, Mary agreed to collaborate with God.
- In God’s plan of salvation, Mary consented to giving humanity God’s Son, our Saviour.
- In authentic human freedom, Mary struggled to make herself available to God for the work of Kingdom-advancement on earth.
Precisely on this point, Rossetti issues a challenge. God’s invitation always requires human commitment. Would we receive God’s invitation as a wonderful opportunity for sacrificial collaboration with God to be humbly accepted, or an onerous and seriously inconvenient responsibility to be vehemently declined? This challenge adds tremendous value to our reflection, for in Mary’s fiat to God, her “let it be to me according to your word” [Luke 1:38], we finally find, after necessary and truthful human struggle, a surrender to God that is at once a complex mix of a profound peace – such peace as the world cannot give – and a tinge of unspoken, residuary fear. It peaks in a humble, but still troubling, acceptance of His invitation to collaborate with Him. It is, in essence, an “uneasy” commitment to make oneself available to God, while being aware of untold, undisclosed, yet-to-unfold challenges ahead. But, make no mistake, at its core, stands a deep and profound sense of gratitude which wants to burst out into songs of praise to the Almighty. So in Mary’s case, Luke tells of her Magnificat [Luke 1:46-55].
The ancient writers of the Book of Genesis have given profound credit to humanity by portraying the presence of divine reality in human beings in the two creation stories. In the first narrative [Genesis 1], the presence of the divine reality is described in terms of human beings being created in the image and likeness of God [1:27]. In the second narrative [Genesis 2], this divine element is graphically depicted in terms of God breathing into the nostrils of the human being to give him life [2:7]. There are a few consequences to this that catch our attention.
- Firstly, born in the image and likeness of God, we are gifted with the original gift of freedom. Positively speaking, freedom is fundamental to every human creature. Negatively, however, just as we have the capacity to do good, we also have the same capacity to do evil. Our creation faith thus places a question at everyone’s door: What kind of a human person do you wish to become? This is an appeal to our freedom: You decide! You are free to do so.
- Secondly, we have the divine breathe in us! In a way far more graphic than the “image of God” description in Genesis 1, Genesis 2 yields the portrait that in every human person, heaven and earth touch one another, God enters into His creation, and the human person is directly related to God. In one stroke, the inspired author delivers a divine gift of fundamental human dignity which no one should deny. The question is, how might humanity in every part of the globe be reminded that to trample on the fundamental human dignity of any human person, is to trample on God?
- That having been said, we do not exist, nor do we have life, without the entry of this divine reality. So never be you so proud as to deny the existence of the Creator or your dependency on Him: “When you take away their breath,” the psalmist of old said, “they die and return to the dust” [Ps. 104:29].
- In his book titled In the Beginning, Pope Benedict XVI seeks to explain what it means for a human being to be made purposefully in God’s own image [Gen 1] and to be given the divine breath [Gen 2], and for being here. It all boils down to this, he writes: Our place and reason for being is to image God on earth.
In other words, we have got work to do during the time we exist on this earth. What work would that be?
From the life, works and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, we learn that Christian existence on earth is to seek first the Kingdom of God in all that we do, to make ourselves available and to collaborate with Christ in works of Kingdom-advancement, and to refuse to be indifferent or worse, participate in works that result in harming Kingdom-advancement. There are many stories in Jesus’ life that are illustrative of this lack of human collaboration, but one episode stands out above others in Christian recollection. St Mark tells us that when Jesus returned to his hometown Nazareth, his revelation at the synagogue was not matched by faith on the part of the people. Lacking the human cooperation that is needed for mighty deeds, Jesus could not work any miracle there [Mark 6:1-6]. God could not have put His plan of salvation to work, if Mary did not make herself available to collaborate with the Almighty.
That Christ needs our help, and asks for our collaboration, is repeated at his most difficult hour, when Satan, after failing to tempt him at the wilderness [Luke 4:13], promised to return. And that he did, at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Luke said Jesus prayed, agonised, and sweat blood [Luke 22:39-46]. At his weakest and most vulnerable, at a key turning point of his life, when Jesus had to decide whether to persist in God’s kingdom path or to cave in and walk away, he needed to commune with Abba Father, but he also asked his three closest disciples whom he picked to accompany him in what would become the garden of struggle, to stay awake, to watch with him, and to pray for an hour. They failed quite pathetically on that crucial occasion.
For Advent reflections, however, we ought to turn to the angels for positive reminder and encouragement. At the outset, John told the world that “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” [John 3:16a]. But Luke introduced a second element – the Annunciation – where God seeks human cooperation, and invites humanity to be available in the implementation of God’s plan. God works with us. God wants to work with and through us. God seeks our collaboration. God awaits our “yes”.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis draws on the important concept of Communio within the Trinity as a matter of self-giving generosity, gratuity and receptivity. The form within the Trinity is echoed in Mary’s fiat, her surrender to God, her willing and humble collaboration with God, despite human trepidation. At the Annunciation, God invited humanity to exercise its freedom positively and be available. Mary’s fiat is that positive response.
- Her “yes” to God meant that she allowed her life to be turned upside down.
- Her “yes” made possible the overflowing of God’s love into the world.
- Her “yes” stood at the origin of all the conditions of possibility on which Jesus’ Kingdom-work and its multiplication depended.
- Her “yes” then made possible our “yes” – and we constitute the Church whose business it is to continue to act as the channel of God’s love in Kingdom-advancement.
The second century Saint Ireneus, considered the first theologian of the Virgin Mary, wrote: “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosened by Mary’s obedience. The bonds fastened by the virgin Eve through disbelief were untied by the virgin Mary through faith.”
In Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, Walter Kasper writes about the reality of God needing our collaboration in a free exercise of the freedom he has given us in the first place. Kasper drives home the point that:
- “God’s mercy does not entail bypassing freedom. God recommends, but he does not force; he presses us, but does not overpower or subdue us. For, according to Augustine, the one who created you without you does not justify you without you.”
- “Divine mercy appeals to human responsibility; divine mercy repeatedly courts human responsibility. With its wooing, mercy demands decision; indeed, it first makes the decision possible.”
- “Even in the human domain, freedom is awakened in the encounter with the freedom of another. A Fortiori, human freedom can decide whether to accept or reject the offer of grace only in light of God’s offer of grace and its empowerment” [pp.108-109].
This image of Mary has always been one that the Church embraces as a symbol of her true identity. Mary’s womb, according to the Church Fathers, was the bridal chambers where the marriage between God and creation took place. For the birthing of God to every new context of human life in this crisis-ridden twenty-first century, we stand in dire need of the heart of Mary which is open to God’s genuine newness of creation, the womb of Mary which was empty of herself, and the spirit of Mary which was free for God. Mary, we recall with severe inadequacy and endless admiration, gave all that she received from God to the world. All she ever did was to receive Jesus from God and gave Jesus to the world, and instructed us through the household servants at the wedding feast in Cana to do whatever Jesus tells us. The Church can offer nothing to the world except the Lord Jesus and all that he has given to us in his words and deeds. This is what Pope Francis is about – calling us back to a healthy faith in Jesus who puts human persons ahead of doctrines, morals and laws.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2015. All rights reserved.
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