But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have not known a man?”– Luke 1:29-34
Grow quiet and still. Open your mind and heart to this image, to the Scripture, to the divine Presence. As you gaze, what do you see? What do you feel? Can you sense an invitation to you from the Spirit? What might it be?
Could any depiction of the Annunciation be at one and the same time so fantastically mystical and so simply ordinary? The angel we were expecting is transfigured into a column of blinding light. Moments ago, the room was totally dark except for a small candle flame; now the whole space is flood-lit. But in all other respects, the scene is plain. The usual accoutrements of Annunciation scenes are all missing. No white lilies or other symbols of purity, no hovering dove, no prayer desk with an open book of scripture, and no halo on Mary. Instead of her lovely traditional blue, she is wearing a dust -colored night robe with stripes. She is an ordinary Jewish girl, and she is in bed. She sits on the edge of her bed, with the crumpled covers spilling onto the floor. Moments ago, she was asleep. Now she is sitting up, staring at this impossibly brilliant beam of light that has shown up in her room and is blazing by the foot of her bed.
This painting made its creator the first internationally acclaimed African-American artist. Henry Ossawa Tanner, born in Pittsburgh and living in Paris, was the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church) and of a woman who was born a slave and had escaped by the Underground Railroad. Tanner had moved to Paris not only because so many artists and writers were there, but because he wanted out of his own racist country. And his paintings were sublime—realism shimmering with transcendence.
The most transcendent aspect of this painting is actually not the pillar of light but the expression on the face of the young woman. It does not show any alarm. It expresses a baffled inquisitiveness. It tilts with intense curiosity and wonder. She is transfixed. She is listening and absorbing, with a look of blank, stunned receptiveness to an encounter she doesn’t understand. Her hands, folded in her lap, indicate an absolute stillness as she tries to take in what the light is telling her. She is at full attention, looking up with studious wonder. She is not quite ready to say it, but soon she will: “How can this be?”
In the biblical story, her question is about the problem of facts. She wants to know how she can be pregnant without having been with a man. Good question. But Tanner’s painting shows us a deeper source of “How can this be?” The Mystery of God is wonderfully, terribly near to us. It permeates and suffuses even our most ordinary moments and circumstance. It is impossibly beyond comprehending and yet calls our names, and invites us to wake up and enter into partnership with its cosmic purposes. We can be indifferent to this if we like. But the sanest response is awe. Our truest answer to the all-encompassing, loving Light is to let it shine bright on our faces, and to become the kind of people who will never cease to live in wonder.
Holy God, Source of all being, infinite Mystery, fiery Light, perfect Love, help me to wake up to your presence and your loving claim on my life. Amen.