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?
“How can this be?” is a question that can be asked in many tones and moods: awestruck reverence, inquisitive curiosity, honest doubt, unnerved objection. Or gleeful happiness, as shown in this Nigerian watercolor. Mary, with shining eyes and a happy smile, is pointing to herself as if to ask, “Who, me!!??” The best of news and the highest of honors has just been brought to her. She is flabbergasted with joyful surprise. How can this be!!??
And see what else is going on in this picture. In Mary’s presence, Gabriel has taken off his shoes, just as Moses had done as a sign that he was on holy ground. This angel is demonstrating that this girl is nothing less than holy and that this moment of encounter with her is holy. What’s more, the message he has brought in an envelope (“A letter from God to me?!”) is so holy that he cannot hold it in his hands, but must lift it up on a forked stick. We see also that while Gabriel kneels on bare ground, Mary is sitting where the green grass grows, and bright flowers stand upright behind her with their stems flung wide as if they’re in on the celebration. And take a look at the small yellow, curved line in each flower’s center. It looks like the flowers are smiling, right along with Mary.
One more thing about her. As she points with wonder toward herself, her other hand—open—is lifted upward, heavenward. This positioning of her hands could not be more fitting: heaven and earth are to be joined in her, and in her child.
Marie Howe’s poem, “Annunciation,” is written in Mary’s voice, and ends with these lines:
I... swam in what shone at me only able to endure it by being no one and so specifically myself I thought I'd die from being loved like that.
That’s what the gladness of this Nigerian Mary is about: the life-shaking marvel of “being loved like that.”
If we knew how absolutely loved we are, something in us might look a lot like this Mary: lit up with grateful amazement. It is by no means something we can feel every day, but it is a life-giving truth to which we can always be open, and to which can keep returning. It’s in the knowledge that we are outrageously loved that we are set free to love outrageously. Yes, we are—you are—loved like that. Feel free to be amazed and to say, “Who, me? How can this be!?” Then lean back and simply savor the astonishing news that it is true.
God of the very best surprises, help me never to forget that your infinite love is for me. May all that I do flow freely from that most amazing gift. Amen.