Artists have painted this scene from Luke’s Gospel hundreds of times. We’ve all seen these images of what we call the Annunciation on the covers of Christmas cards. These images usually depict Mary and the Angel dressed in beautiful clothes. Gabriel’s wings are flared and magnificent – Mary is dressed in a beautiful blue robe and looks lovely. Images like this have always felt a bit unreal, too pretty, too perfect.
My favorite image of this moment hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is a painting by an American artist named Henry Tanner. In Tanner’s painting, Gabriel does not appear as an angel with wings but as a beam of light that filled Mary’s bedroom with its glow. Mary in his painting is sitting on a bed a bit disheveled like she just woke up. The bright light of the angel is right in front of her. Tanner’s painting is like a candid snap-shot of this moment. He captures Mary’s humanity her normalness. He allows the viewer to relate to her as an average person, like us in every way. The scene appears to be right after the angel has said these words and Mary looks thoughtful and reflective, even a bit scared and bewildered. She has a look on her face that says, "How can this be?" What is so engaging about Tanner’s painting is that he allows us to think for a moment about what that real-life situation was for this humble young woman.
Have you ever thought of what might have gone through Mary’s mind at that moment? We just assume she eagerly said, “may it be done to me.” But perhaps at that moment, Mary thought of all the consequences of her decision, before she responded.
- Did she think about what it was going to be like to tell her family that she was pregnant before being married?
- Did she wonder if they would believe her when she told them that she hadn't been intimate with a man? That would be pretty hard for any parent to believe.
- Did Mary wonder how her fiancé Joseph would react? We know from Matthew’s Gospel, that at first, Joseph didn’t believe her; that he was going to divorce her quietly.
- Did she think about the wagging tongues spreading rumors about her and Jesus in the future? Would they talk about the impropriety of Mary’s pregnancy?
- And did it pop into her mind, even for a second, that the penalty according to the Mosaic Law for being unmarried and pregnant was death by stoning?
In truth, we don’t know what that moment was like for Mary. But in many ways thinking that she did consider the consequences of her decision gives her “YES” even more impact. Here this teenage girl listened to this incomprehensible request and bravely said “YES” even if it cost her her life. And this simple girl’s “Yes” changed the world forever. In that moment Mary is a model for us. All of us like Mary face moments when life takes a turn; we never expected when God’s plan for us seems a total surprise. In her amazing bravery, Mary inspires us to have faith in God’s plan.
It’s important for us to appreciate the courage of Mary in that moment. Denise Levertov wrote a poem about this moment called “Annunciation.” And the words of the poet are words that can inspire us to say “Yes” when we are called to handle something challenging when we are called to be brave in our faith. Her poem goes like this:
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am unworthy,”
Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit
with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
opened her utterly.
Mary consented to God’s request to a wholly unexpected and radical change in her life. She agreed because she knew God. She said “YES” because she was a good Jew and a prayerful person she knew her God was a merciful God a God who would look after her.
Mary is a great role model for each of us. Mary said yes to God and welcomed Jesus in a special way into her life and allowed God – allowed Jesus – to come into the world. And like her God asks us to welcome Him into our life.
God is asking each of us, in our own way, to accept Jesus into our lives and to bring Jesus into - our – world; to bring the saving power of Jesus to those in our world.
And God waits for our answer. Will we say – “YES” – this Year?