07 December 2014

Call & Response

Fran Angelico, The Virgin of the Annunciation, 1450.
Luke 1:26-38

Second Sunday of Advent/ 7th December 2014

Put yourself in Mary’s sandals (as it were).  Place your sense of self within hers and then imagine what it must have felt like to encounter a messenger of the Living God. Try to enter into Mary’s world.  Imagine her astonishment and surprise.  She didn’t go searching for this encounter.  She didn’t wake up one morning, bored with life in Nazareth, and say, “I need to do something different with my life.  How about giving birth to the Messiah?  How about giving birth to the Son of God?”  I don’t think it was like that.

No, Mary didn’t go searching after an encountering with Gabriel.  My guess is that Mary probably wanted an ordinary life in Nazareth, as ordinary as possible living under the crushing oppression and brutal violence of the Roman Empire.  She probably just wanted to survive.  She probably dreamed of a normal life—safety, security, shelter, family, someone to love and appreciate her, like Joseph, someone to love in return, and children—children born in a world with a better future than hers, children of promise.

“Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.” You, Mary—favored one.  Mary wasn’t expected this.  She was perplexed and curious about this visitation.  Mary didn’t go searching after the life that was eventually given to her.  That life was announced to her from out of nowhere.  The annunciation came without warning.  It broke into her life; it erupted deep within her ordinary existence and summoned her toward a different life.  Sometimes the life we’re really supposed to have within God’s providence is not the life we’ve been searching for or planning for or hoping for.  We all have our individual hopes and dreams for our lives, but God often (usually) has different plans for us.  It’s been said that one way to make God laugh is to tell God your plans.  Sometimes the life we’re meant to have, by God’s grace, is not what we expect.

It’s striking that Mary is not completely passive here.  On the one hand she didn’t really have a choice about the direction her life was about to take.  I guess Gabriel could have given her a choice.  I’ll be back in twenty-four hours, Mary; you can let me know then.  Gabriel didn’t give her some kind of exit clause.  He never gives her the option to say, “No.” Not me.  Choose a different Mary.  Choose someone more favored than me.  

Mary doesn’t reject the offer outright, but neither does she immediately accept it.  She’s confused by the visit, “ponders” the meaning of the greeting.  She allows Gabriel to speak. (Although, encountering an angel, I’m told, is a terrifying thing. I don’t think I would ever not allow an angel to speak.)  Mary listens to the plan, she hears that she will bear a son whose name will be Jesus.  He will be great, the Son of the Most High.  She discovers that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and bring Jesus to life within her.  She learns that Elizabeth, her cousin, will also have a role in this plan. 

Mary had to be full of doubt, overwhelmed by the entire experience.  How does one begin to process news such as this?  How does one find a frame of meaning for something like this, how can it even make sense without a frame of reference, something to compare it to, to help you receive it, understand it.  But she has nothing.  All she has is trust in the faithfulness of God—and that’s all she really means.  “For nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel says.  And it’s then, and only then, that Mary consents and yields.  Actively passive, she says:  “Here am I.  Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And with that acknowledgement Gabriel was on his way.

Since the early centuries of the Church, countless artists have rendered this text, this encounter.  
Annunciation, Priscilla Catacomb, Rome, 2nd century CE.
One of the earliest images of the annunciation comes from the second century and can be found in the Priscilla Catacomb on the Via Salaria in Rome.  

The annunciation was a favored subject in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  Among the most arresting depictions of this story is Fra Angelico’s (1395-1455), The Virgin of the Annunciation. He painted several versions of this text, but it’s the one in Florence, at the convent of San Marco, which is particularly stunning.  There is something striking about this painting.  The Gabriel arrives on the left side of the canvass in all his glory; Mary is seated on the right, with her head slightly bowed.  But if you look carefully at the painting you’ll see that not only is Mary seated, she’s leaning forward toward Gabriel, leaning in toward the announcement.  Don’t you do the same thing when you’re in a serious conversation, when you’re actively listening?  You lean your body forward, into what is being said to you. It’s this “‘bending toward’ of spirit, intellect, and ear”—all that she is, that allowed Mary to become Mary.[1]

It’s that posture, the posture of actively listening, of being actively passive, receptive to the divine summons that captures so beautifully the full reach and depth of the religious life.  It’s easy to think that Mary was special—and she was.  What was asked of her was certainly unique—and it was. Her life and the life she carried into the world were isolated events in the history of the world.  Absolutely.  Therefore, “Hail, Mary. Blessed art thou among women.” As our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace.” 

But we have to be very careful that our adoration of her and attention to her favored, unique status exempts us from a comparable summons to serve God with our lives.  Not in exactly the same way, to be sure, but something comparable.  There was only one Mary and there’s only one Jesus.  However, implicit in this extraordinary birth story is the notion that something comparable could—probably is—being asked of us.

The medieval German philosopher, theologian, mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260–c.1328) once made this provocative claim, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”  It’s true, whether female or male, we’re all meant to be mothers of God, giving birth through our lives to the very life of God.  And in this sense you and I are being equally summoned and called.  God is always asking something of us.  Mary shows us how to answer that call.

It’s true for all of us.  God demands something from us.  God demands from our lives something that will bring life and light and healing to the world!  This is why you exist.  It’s why you’ve come into the world.  It’s the reason for your very existence.

And God is always advent-ing toward us—coming toward us, speaking, like Gabriel, summoning us to fulfill the purpose of our lives—and, like Mary, we must lean forward, lean into what is being said, be attentive, and listen to the divine voice, the summons calling you to life. 

And God is looking for your response, a response from us.  Response will then usher in responsibility—which may be why we’re often reluctant or even fearful to respond because responding could possibly mess up the life that we have so carefully prepared for ourselves.  Mary knows, however, that she is not the center of her life; she’s not the center of her universe.  Instead, she knows that her existence is grounded in the larger life and mission of God and it is to that larger Life that Mary knows she is ultimately in service.  Acknowledging this, she listens, she yields to God’s demand on her life, she responds.  Listening and responding.  Call and response.  It’s a liturgical act.  Indeed, our lives are shaped by this liturgical act.  Existence is grounded in this liturgical dance. Call and response.  The contemporary literary critic and philosopher George Steiner once said, “Man is only a privileged listener and respondent to existence.”[2] 

Will we attend to the voice of God?  
What is being announced to you?
What is trying to be born through you? 
Will we tend, nurture what God is birthing in us through Christ?
What will be your response?

In time, this too might be our response:

Here am I. 
All of me:
here's my body,
here's my mind,
here's my spirit,
here's my soul.
All of me. 
Here I am, the servant of the Lord.
Let it be with me according to your word.

[1] I’m grateful for George Steiner’s comment on Fra Angelico’s Virgin of the Annunciation, which became the basis for this reflection on the text.  It’s found in Steiner's study of the thought of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), MartinHeidegger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 130.  See also Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The DividedBrain and the Making of the Western World (New Have: Yale University Press, 2009), 152.
[2] George Steiner, 32.

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