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Posts Tagged ‘Annunciation’

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Our Own Personal Annunciation

Last week we celebrated the feast of the Visitation, and a friend of mine used the occasion to hark back to the feast of the Annunciation, which we celebrate normally on March 25th.  That’s a feast that has earned the fascination of Christian artists through the centuries, and as a result we have a ton of renditions of that biblical story.

Much of that art reflects the rather sweet character of the gospel story.  Oftentimes it presumes that Mary was in the middle of her prayers, though the gospels don’t explicitly say she was doing that at the time.  Anyway, an angel interrupts to confide that Mary has found favor with God, and God has invited her to be the mother of Jesus.  Mary’s positive response, recounted in the Magnificat, has for most of Christian history taken its place in the daily prayer of the Church.

432B0660-7CE4-4AA8-B531-4672CAA5A663Preachers have regularly commented on Mary’s ready response, but my friend wondered aloud whether Mary may have asked for time to think about it.  Why wouldn’t she ask for some time — time to talk with her parents or with at least one good friend?  No one could fault her for wanting to think things through — not even God.

That comment opened the floodgates of my own imagination.  If I had been Mary, my own assent would not have come so easily.  “You want me to do WHAT?  Are you kidding me?  What will people say?”  Then would have come a quick afterthought.  “At least give me some time to think about it.  What you’re asking is huge, you know.”

The gospel account contains no trace of any personal drama, but it does leave us wondering about what really may have just happened.  It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the whole thing may have left Mary a little dazed.  After all, she pondered all this in her heart, and I’m guessing she did so every day for the rest of her life.

From one perspective this story is simple and straightforward.  Mary accepted God’s invitation;  she gave birth to a son;  and mother and son moved on with their lives.  But we also know that the story would have been entirely different had it been we.  Thank God we weren’t the ones at that kneeler that morning.  We wouldn’t have known what to say, but “okay, sure, make it so” would not have been the first thing out of our lips.

39D07D97-5DEA-4031-850C-0FFA4C8EF1ACAs true as all that may be, it doesn’t mean that our turn with God will never come.  God may have had a unique role for Mary, but God always keeps an eye out for other people too, including us.  Mary was neither the first nor was she the last person to whom God has pitched really crazy ideas, and sooner or later our day with God will come.

All of that serves as a good preamble to thoughts about what God has in mind for us.  Not surprisingly we find God’s invitations to us to be really difficult things.  Whether it’s a vocation or a personal crisis or a challenge that seems way beyond our skill set, the invitations from God come anyway.  And often they come at the most inconvenient of times.  Actually, they tend to come when we’re busy — when we have other plans.

”Why me, oh Lord?”  “This is way too much to ask of me.”  “I don’t have the strength to do it.”  “Ask somebody better-suited to take this on.”  “At least give me time to think about it.”  This is how we usually bargain with God for time and understanding.  This, coincidentally, is what we call prayer.

The fact of the matter is, sooner or later each of us will have our own annunciation.  For better or worse God asks something of each of us; and being a sly negotiator, God gives us all the time in the world to come up with a really good reply.  The good news is that God is patient with us.  The less good news is that God never gives up on us, so we can never beg off from God’s invitations.

45CB9377-93DB-4D74-9A08-77789FB40EC5God asks what sometimes may seem to be the impossible;  but it’s equally true that God never asks for more than we are able to do.  So it is that at the end of it all our story will be much like Mary’s.  As unlikely as it may seem to us, we too will join with a personal chorus of the Magnificat.  “Behold, the Lord has done great things for me;  holy is his name.”  Who would have thought!  I know I certainly never saw it coming.

NOTES

+Today we monks of Saint John’s Abbey begin our annual five-day retreat.  This year Abbot Gregory Polan will lead us in the retreat.  Abbot Gregory is a monk of Conception Abbey in Missouri, and he lived in our community for four years while he did seminary studies with us.  More recently he was elected Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Confederation, and he now lives at the Abbey of Sant Anselmo on the Aventine in Rome.

+The photos in today’s post were ones I took at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  At top is The Annunciation, by Giovanni de Paolo (Sienna, ca. 1435).  Below that is a work by Masolino da Panicale (Florence, ca. 1423), followed by a work by Fra Carnevale (Florence, ca. 1445).  Next is a favorite of mine, The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio (Venice, ca. 1505); and at the bottom is The Holy Kinship, of south German provenance, ca. 1480.

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I’ve Never Done That Before

“I’ve never done that before.”  That’s an excuse that I’ve used countless times, and I wish I had a dollar for each time I’ve relied on it to get me out of a jam.  Even richer would I be if I had a dollar for when I’ve been part of a group that collectively invoked it.

On the one hand, it’s certainly not a fib when I’ve resorted to that line.  It’s almost always been a statement of fact.  But it’s also served as justification for inaction, as in:  “I’ve never done that before, and I see no good reason to start doing it now.”

One of the central characters in the Advent story is Mary, who had to be stunned by the angel’s message.  She was to give birth to a son, if she said “yes.”  Who could blame her if she said “no” to this preposterous idea?  So Mary bought time to think by pointing out the obvious.  She was neither married nor living with a man, so how could this possibly be?  That, of course, was a statement of the obvious facts.  But equally obvious had to be her fear and reluctance, and nobody could have blamed her had she responded with a hearty “no way!”  But that meant saying “no” not just to an angel, but to God.  From that refusal Mary shrank.  So she gave it a few moments’ thought and then utttered words that for her were life-changing:  “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

IMG_4957God’s invitation to Mary was certainly unique, but never for a minute should we conclude that God has left us off the hook.  In fact, on any given day God puts to us all sorts of invitations.  A few are huge, and most are inconsequential.  Yet, after all these years and all sorts of missed opportunities, I’m still surprised by my own hesitation to dive right in.  Whenever that happens I remind myself that at core I’m risk-averse.  When God or anybody else asks me to step out of my comfort zone my immediate reaction is caution.  I hesitate to try new things.  I delay and mentally dig in my heels.  But when I do swing into action, I always wonder why I hadn’t done it sooner.

A key message of Advent is the story of someone who decided not to let fear paralyze her.  So it was that Mary threw in her lot with God.  Despite everything, she said “yes,” and life was never the same for her.

Sadly I, who am better-schooled and have advantages that Mary never had, fear to take the leap when God beckons.  Perhaps I’m just too good at thinking up great excuses, and sometimes I’ve even imagined that I have too much to lose.

But Mary teaches me and all of us a good lesson.  She was one of the first to act upon an idea that Jesus preached over and over:  those who lose their lives for his sake gain everything.   Could it be that was one of the things that Mary taught Jesus as he grew in age and wisdom?

IMG_4980In response to God’s invitation Mary threw all her caution out the window and said “yes” to God.   And that might shape the sort of advice she would give to us today.  She’d likely say that her “yes” made all the difference in the world for her.  Perhaps our “yes” might do exactly the same for us.

 

Notes

+On December 12th I presided at the Abbey Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

+On December 13th I fought the snow as I drove to the airport to fly to Fort Myers, FL.  There was no snow in Florida, but there was traffic, and lots of it.  On the first day I witnessed two accidents, one of which looked horrible.  Lest anyone conclude from today’s post that “caution” is a bad idea, I quickly affirm its value on the roads and highways in the run-up to Christmas.

+In today’s post I have images from two altar panels, housed in the Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona.  Both are of the Annunciation, and the first is a ca. 1350 panel made for the Church of Saint Vincent in Cardona..  The second is a 14th-century image from a church in Valencia.

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