The Annunciation and all of Us
The Annunciation ; Date: 1898 ; Artist: Henry Ossawa Tanner, (American (active France), 1859–1937) ; Medium: Oil on canvas ; Dimensions: 57 × 71 1/4 inches; Philadelphia Art Museum
December 1, 2022
Dear friends and members of Charis:
I know. Trish’s favorite Annunciation picture, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a remarkable, pioneering African American artist born in the mid 19th Century in Pittsburgh appears again in our newsletter! What can I say. I adore it. Such an amazing and innovative rendering of the sacred text. Due to the discrimination he faced, Tanner spent most of his life in France. This painting hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Last night as we gathered for Advent scripture study, one of the participants mused about the report of the Annunciation offered in Luke. “What would this passage say,” she wondered, “if Mary had given us her personal written account?” One response offered to the questioner was that we might surmise that it is accurate, as there is a stream of biblical scholarship that affirms that Mary the mother of Jesus might have lived with Luke in Ephesus.
But I wasn’t so quick to abandon that question, as I think it offers us unique personal entry points into the story. I find it endlessly intriguing. And to explore that, let’s turn back to Tanner.
Henry Osawa Tanner was a realist painter, so the depiction he offers us is his best effort at capturing, almost like a snapshot, the moment of Mary’s cosmic encounter. Notice that the angel is not one with unfurled wings and flowing robes as Gabriel is often depicted in classical art. Instead, Gabriel looks like Scotty just beamed them down from the Starship Enterprise! And while Gabriel’s first words are the angelic standard (and, as Fr. Don noted last night, a favorite phrase of Jesus) “fear not” (or “do not be afraid”), in Tanner’s rendering we don’t see a Mary overcome by terror. Most of my life, I’ve played with the idea of how cosmically wild and frightening angels must look if the first words out of their mouths are “don’t freak!”
Next, take a look at Mary. In Tanner’s portrait the very much the young and marginal teen of our story has crept into the corner of her pallet with trepidation, but her face offers another take on her reaction. Is this right as Gabriel appears? Mid conversation? Right before he zips away? Her expression is quizzical. Curious. Open. Intrigued. Patient. Peaceful.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I think if I had a close encounter of the angelic kind, those might not be my first reactions. But I love them! And I wonder if Mary’s youth, her innocence, maybe the invincibility that we feel when we are young, all fuel that reaction. And of course, her reaction is underpinned by her faith. Unlike Zechariah, who last week jumped from Gabriel’s answer to all his, and his wife’s, hopes and dreams straight into a feasibility interrogation (for which, you recall, he was roundly silenced), Mary, who will become the means by which this divine, planet changing child will arrive, allows herself first to be a vessel for the message of God. Not fighting, not resisting, not letting fear block her ability to hear. Listening. Pondering. Wondering.
This Sunday, we’ll light the second candle of our Advent wreath. This is often referred to as the candle of faith. And certainly, in Mary we see a sort of stunning surrender in faith to whatever God has in store. The second candle is also called the candle of peace. I’m wondering if we could embrace both of those labels this week. Mary’s faith underpins her ready “yes,” because while she has questions (“good on her,” as my Australian friends say) she does not have arguments. But also, because the “ask” includes a stunning challenge, there is also peace in her surrender.
We are in a culture that challenges, perhaps appropriately, our faith. We interrogate ancient stories. We hopefully think about and embrace them in new ways. Sometimes, our faith is met with skepticism or even derision. Likewise, the culture challenges our peace, as world and often personal issues scale to a point where we literally despair of making an impact, staying paralyzed by anxiety and fear.
This is why we Sabbath together. We gather in faith, and we gather in peace, and we lean on Mary’s servant leadership and each other as we turn to God and say, “Behold, I am yours… I am your doule, your empowered servant, God.” Tell me what you need me to do, and I trust you to help me do it.
An Ecumenical Catholic Community
cháris Χάρις khar’ece Our name means grace, good will, loving-kindness, favor; of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.