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?
In some ways, this painting reminds us of the one by Tanner, which we contemplated on Sunday. But Rossetti has not held back on the traditional symbolic elements associated with the scene. Mary has a halo. The angel (also haloed, but wingless) is embodied and has brought white lilies, symbol of purity. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, flies in (sporting a halo of its own!). A new element to signify transcendence is that there are flames at Gabriel’s feet, which are hovering. But like Tanner’s Mary, Rossetti’s Mary is sitting on her bed he, and since her hair is unbrushed, she seems to have been wakened from sleep. By far, the most arresting difference in this painting is that Mary’s body and face are in a state of pure dread, horror, and recoil. See how her torso has pulled back, angled to the side, away from the angel. Her legs are tucked beneath her, as if she wants to be nowhere near him. She won’t even look at him, but stares blankly at the lilies. Her head is bent rigidly downward. She has the look of someone who is deeply shaken. Her sense of vulnerability is accented by the fact that she is wearing only her nightgown. If Gabriel has already told her to “Fear not,”she is having none of it. She is the opposite of the Nigerian Mary we studied yesterday. When this Mary says in a moment, “How can this be?”, she will mean, “I am terrified!”
Each of us might do well to ask ourselves: Am I afraid of the presence and the calling of God? Do I avoid engaging with God because something in me is fearful of being so vulnerable and so inadequate? Do I fear that God will ask too much of me, that I will be asked to change my life in ways I don’t want to? Rossetti’s’ Mary shows us that such a response is natural, is understandable. But we also know the rest of the story. She will find her way to saying Yes. Maybe Gabriel will have to wait awhile for that answer, but in time she will rise to give it. As her life as the mother of Jesus, will she ever completely stop being afraid. Maybe not. But she will push through, because she knows a truth far greater than fear, and that truth is love.
An interesting fact: the model Rossetti used for his Mary was his sister, Christina, the great poet who gave us the Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Some of her work reveals that she was well acquainted with her own dark moods. But in that poem, which we sing every year, she concluded with the famous line: “Yet what I can I give him, give him my heart.” To let ourselves know how loved we are, and simply to give our love in return—love for Christ, for others, for the world—is to learn at last that perfect love cast out fear.
God, Giver of courage, help us to know in our deepest heart that love is what overcomes fear. And in the strength of such love, make us fearless to rise and to offer own self-giving love.