What is it about the Annunciation that is so captivating? Here's a meditation on how the story of Gabriel's visit to Mary can help us in our own relationship with God. (That's Henry Tanner's Annunciation to the right.)
Why is this brief passage from the Gospel of Luke the subject of more artistic renderings—paintings, sculptures, mosaics, frescos—than almost any other passage in the New Testament, save the Nativity and the Crucifixion?
One could easily argue that there are other incidents from the life of Jesus with greater theological importance—miracle stories, physical healings, sermons and the like. There are passages from the New Testament with greater relevance for the life of the church—the naming of Peter as the leader of the church, the feeding of the five thousand. One could say that the gospels contain stories of greater import for the spiritual life of believers—just think of the Sermon on the Mount. So why do those few verses in the first chapter of Luke (1: 26-38) exert such a hold on so many believers?
Perhaps because it depicts the dramatic entrance of the divine into our everyday world: God greets a young girl in her simple home in a small town. Perhaps because the passage highlights of the special role of women in the divine plan: Mary accomplishes something that certainly no man could do. Perhaps Mary is someone whom many believers hope to emulate: humble, obedient, loving, trusting.
But I think that the Annunciation draws me for a different reason. For it seemed that in this gospel story Mary wonderfully exemplifies the role of the real-life believer. The Annunciation perfectly describes the growth of a personal relationship with God—something I was just discovering during those first months as a Jesuit. And in doing so the story offers us something like a multi-faceted jewel: a microcosm of the spiritual life.
To begin with, the initiative lies with God. It is God, through the angel Gabriel, who begins the dialogue with Mary. ("Hail, full of grace!") As it is in our own lives. God begins the conversation. God speaks to us, and—as with Mary—often in unexpected ways. We are surprised to find ourselves moved by catching a glimpse of a spectacular sunset on an otherwise cold and cloudy day, by holding one's newborn child, by receiving Communion at Mass, by listening to a church organ intone a favorite hymn, by getting an unexpected phone call from a good friend, by hearing a long-awaited word of forgiveness. And in these things, and in our emotional responses in particular, we are surprised to experience God's presence. To experience "something we know not what." Something outside of ourselves. Something transcendent.
But it is God who takes the initiative, and who surprises us with his presence, as he did with Mary.
When Mary first experiences the presence of God, she is fearful or "perplexed," as some translations would have it. How often this happens to us! When we first begin to wonder if God might be communicating with us—through our emotions, our experiences, our relationships, our prayer—we often grow fearful, confused, abashed. Often we feel unworthy before the evidence of God's love, since the presence of the divine illuminates our own humanity and finitude.
This sense of unworthiness was experienced by our teachers in the Old and New Testaments. Consider St. Peter in the Gospel of Luke. After Peter and his companions have been fishing all night without success Jesus orders them to throw out their nets again. When their nets miraculously fill to the breaking point, Peter suddenly realizes who it is who stands before him. Standing before the Messiah, Peter feels intensely his own unworthiness. It is a painful experience. "Depart from me," he says. "For I am a sinful man."
Just as often we stand in awe of the majesty of God, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as the theologian Rudolph Otto calls it: the tremendous and fascinating mystery. That which both attracts and frightens us.
On a retreat some years ago I was struggling with my vocation as a Jesuit. Walking along the New England shoreline, I wondered: How, as someone who takes a vow of chastity, would I ever experience the love that I desired? Would I be lonely? Was chastity what I was meant for?
Suddenly (and without asking for it) I was flooded with memories from my years as a Jesuit: friends I knew and loved, patient and caring spiritual directors, warm and friendly community members, holy priests, brothers, sisters and laypersons—all whom I had met through my life as a Jesuit, who I had only met because I was a Jesuit. I understood this as a clear response to my questioning: my vocation is not only the way that I love God, but also the way that God loves me. It was a resounding yes from God.
Not surprisingly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. At the same time, the notion that the Creator as communicating with me in this direct way was disturbing, and yes, frightening. It was hard to reconcile the two emotions.
This quintessentially human experience—fear—repeats itself frequently in Scripture. It is the experience of the shepherds in their fields in the narrative from Luke. "The glory of the Lord shone around them," says the New Revised Standard Version, "and they were terrified." Much better at conveying this emotion is the King James Version: "They were sore afraid."
In light of this fear, the angel offers the shepherds the message that God offers all who respond in this manner: "Do not be afraid." Jesus, in the boat with a frightened and embarrassed Peter, says the same, "Do not be afraid, for now you will be fishers of people." God sees and understands our fear. At the Annunciation God understands Mary's reactions as well. So, says Gabriel, "Fear not."
Significantly, the angel now offers Mary an explanation, more detail, about what God is asking of her. (The word angel, by the way, is taken from the Greek angelos and simply means messenger.) "You have found favor with God," says Gabriel, "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son..." Again, how similar to experiences in our own lives. As we reflect on our experience with God, it gradually becomes clearer what God is asking us to do. Holding a newborn child for the first time is a vivid experience of God for parents. So many parents have told me that one of their first reactions following the birth of a child, after gratitude, is a surprising one: fear. How will I ever care for this child? How will I protect it? What will I do if my baby gets sick? Over time it becomes clear what God is asking us to do: Love your child.
Then, in Luke's telling, Mary questions. What must have been a young, illiterate woman from a backwater town ("Can anything good come from Nazareth?" asks Nathaniel elsewhere) pressed the Angel of the Lord for an explanation. "How can this be," asked the practical Mary to God's messenger, "since I am a virgin?"
This is the facet of the story that is most familiar to us: Who hasn't questioned the will of God in their lives? Who, when confronted with dramatic change hasn't questioned God's plan? Who hasn't said to God, "How can this be?" Who hasn't said, "Why me?"
Gabriel responds in the way that God often responds to us. After explaining to Mary that the "Holy Spirit will overshadow you" (which on top of everything else was undoubtedly confusing) the angel reminds Mary to look for signs of God's promise fulfilled in her life. In other words, to consider the experience in her life and in others: "Know that your kinswoman Elizabeth is in her sixth month," he says. "She who was once thought to be barren in now with child. For nothing is impossible with God."
In other words, look around you. Look at what God can do, and has done in your life already.
Frequently in spiritual direction I meet people doubting that God is accompanying them during a difficult time. Perhaps someone has lost a job. Or a friend or parent has grown ill or old. Or a relationship has ended. Or they have grown depressed or discouraged. Even the devout begin to doubt the presence of God in their lives. It's natural.
Usually all it takes for them to regain their trust is a simple question: "Hasn't God been with you in the past?" Often they will think for a while and say something like, "Yes, now that you mention it, each time I thought I couldn't go on, I found that something or someone helped me to do so. I really felt God was right there with me."
A few years ago I edited a book called How Can I Find God? in which I invited a number of contributors, from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, to answer the same question: If someone asked you how to find God, what would you say? The answer I found the most surprising was from, of all people, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, a Dutch Jesuit named Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. And what he said reminded me very much of the story of Mary and the Angel.
From his office in Rome, Father Kolvenbach wrote that he was reminded of the story of a very holy abbot who used to speak frequently to his monks of finding God, searching for God and encountering God. One day one of the monks asked if he had ever encountered God himself. After a bit of embarrassed silence, the abbot admitted that he had never had a vision or a direct experience of God. Yet, he said, there was nothing surprising about that: God himself said to Moses in the Book of Exodus, "You cannot see my face." But God had also taught Moses that he could see God's back as he passed by: "You will see me pass." So looking back over his many days, the abbot could see very clearly the "passage of God" in his life. Father Kolvenbach concluded his meditation this way:
In this sense, it is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by him in all of life's situations, where he does not cease to pass and where he allows himself to be recognized once he has really passed: "You will see my back."
What a wonderful insight! Too many people think that the idea of "finding God" or "experiencing God" or "listening to God" is the province of mystics and saints. Not for me, they say. Or they expect some instantly transforming experience of voices or visions or emotions. But more often than not God is found by looking back over your life, or your week, or your day, and saying, "Yes, there was God." Finding God is often a matter of simply being aware, and even of looking back.
Often we are so mired in present-day concerns that we are unable to look or see or recognize God's activity in the here-and-now. Only in time are most of us able to look back and understand. But the more we grow in sanctity the more we grow in our awareness of God's presence in our daily lives. The saints, then, are those who are always mindful of God—as they cast their minds over their past, as they live in the present, and as they hope in the future.
Gabriel, in essence, says the same thing to Mary. Look back over the course of your life. Look at what God has done. And look at what God is doing. Just look at Elizabeth. "In her old age [she] has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who is said to be barren."
And when Mary reflects on what she sees around her, on her own experience and knowledge of what has happened to Elizabeth, she is finally able to say yes to this strange request by God: "Let it be done to me according to your will!"
Mary does this in perfect freedom. As do we. God meets us in myriad ways, through nature, through prayer, especially through people—"playing lovely in ten thousand limbs," as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. God invites us to join him, he invites us to follow him, he invites us to create with him. But the decision is always up to us. We are free to say yes or no.
With her yes, with her fiat, her "let it be," Mary partners herself with the Almighty and is empowered to bring Christ into the world. This world-changing yes is what St. Bernard speaks of in one of his sermons on Mary: "Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word."
With our own yes to God's voice in our lives we are also asked to nurture the word of God within us and bring Christ into the world—certainly not in the same way that Mary was, but in our own situations. Using our own talents and graces we are called to bring Christ into the lives of others.
In describing the arc of the conversation of Gabriel and Mary, the gospel of Luke perfectly describes the arc of the spiritual life: God initiates the conversation; we are initially hesitant and fearful; we seek to understand God's word in our life; God reminds us of our experience, and, free to choose, if we say yes to God, we are able to bring new life into the world.
But that's not the whole story. A few months ago I was discussing this passage with a friend, a woman religious. At the end of our discussion she said, "But if you're thinking about the Annunciation as it relates to the spiritual life, you're forgetting the most important part of the story!" I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Then the angel left her!" she laughed. "Isn't that always the way it is with us? After these encounters with God—however they happen in our lives—we are left alone to carry out what we are asked to do. Though God is with us still, frequently it seems very lonely. Who knows if Mary ever encountered God as deeply as she did before Jesus' birth?"
She was right: This is the hardest part: trusting in what God has told us. The part of faith. The part of living it out.
Adapted from My Life with the Saints.
James Martin, SJ