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?
This two-figured sculpture brings a smile. Both figures are bent sharply at the waist toward each other’s faces, eye to eye, each with jutting chins and necks craning forward to get as close to each other as possible in spited of the distance between them. Are they taking each other’s measure, inspecting, and sharply assessing each other? Is there something adversarial here? This depiction seems to show some rather heated tension between Mary and her heavenly intruder.
What if there were some truth in that interpretation of the encounter between Gabriel and Mary? We are told, after all, that she was troubled by the way he spoke to her. And in the question “How can this be?” couldn’t we hear something like “Well oh yeah?” or “What is that supposed mean, buster?” In the biblical story, Mary is clearly not using such a tone, but she is unnerved by this encounter. And she feels the freedom to interrupt an angel with a question that implies he isn’t making sense. This isn’t far from raising an objection to something that is too hard to understand or submit to. The fact that she didn’t go that far doesn’t mean we can’t.
If some new calling is laid on your life—some new way of serving others, or of loving in ways that are hard for you, or giving more and risking more and letting go of more—nothing is wrong with asking How can this be? in tones of resistance and frustration. Sometimes we cannot arrive at Yes without having heard ourselves say honestly No. Living a faithful life doesn’t mean you tuck in your tail and submit and keep your mouth shut. To be a child of God is to live in dialogue with love’s invitations and instructions. The praying of our doubts and our reservatoins may clear the way for saying our love, our thanks, and our acceptance.
Funny thing about this sculpture. We’ve been looking at it on a screen, which means we’re seeing it in only two dimensions. But a sculpture, as you know, is three-dimensional art, and is best understood by seeing it from all around. Well, guess what. If you move around the sculpture to the other side, you see that it wasn’t quite what you thought. What appeared at first sight to be opposition, turns out to be something a bit more like a dance. Mary and the angel are in a partnership of movement. They are not angled in real opposition but in a tilting toward each other. They seem to be, as someone has said, in a tender upward spiral.
That’s how it is when we live in dialogue with the Mystery; it is moving in the rhythms of love. In relationship with God, we express our desires, our objections, our needs, our questions, our reaching, our yielding. God’s favor grants us such freedom, a freedom that will often lead us to move from “How can this be?” to “Yes!”
God of truest freedom, you give so much, you ask so much, you invite so much. Please keep me fully and honestly engaged with every aspect of who you bless me to be and call me to be. Amen.