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?
The Kenyan artist Rosemary Namuli Karuga (b. 1928) created this sculpture while an art student in Uganda. Soon after she finished school, she had to give up her art, lacking money for art supplies, and lacking time as she raised children and supported a husband. She was a subsistence farmer, then a teacher at a small rural school. For thirty years her art was laid aside, until at age 60 she took it up again. In the sculpture, there’s a poignancy in Mary’s face that seems fitting to the hardships that would soon overtake the young artist.
The piece does not explicitly portray the annunciation; it is titled simply, Mary. The artist means to show the very essence of the woman who bore Jesus into the world. The image could portray more than one moment in Mary’s life, or perhaps the whole of it. It could also depict anyone in the world whose commitments and experience bear resemblance to hers.
Her long clothing is nondescript, leaving us to focus only on her remarkable face (and on her large hands). How would you name the expression of her face? It carries suggestions of both sorrow and awe, of a woman who is absorbing something hard to absorb. We see a deep, vulnerable receptiveness. And reverence. She looks slightly upward, responding to what she sees with sadness, perhaps with deep wonder, perhaps with both.
What moment in her life is this? Could it be the day her son was crucified, and she stood near his cross looking upward to him, watching him die and hearing his final words to her. Yes, the sculpture suggests her response in that terrible moment. But see how it also suggests the moment when Gabriel told her she was to bear Jesus into the world. Depictions of the Annunciation often show Mary raising one of her hands to her chest. The same is true here, though the hand is almost to her throat. What if her upward gaze is toward the angel who is bringing news about her that is too awesome to absorb—so impossible and terrifying and wondrous that her whole self is filled up with “How can this be?”
Fascinating, isn’t it, that a single image could express Mary’s response both to Jesus’ birth and his death, both to the beginning and the end. The reason this is so? The beginning and the end are in many ways alike. Both are gifts of holy, costly, and wondrous love. In his being born is already his dying, and his dying is the completion and the new beginning of his birth. Mostly what this Mary reminds us is this: that wonder is not reserved for a particular kind of moment. Wonder is in sadness as well as in delight, in endings as well as beginnings. For the great mystery of God’s love is in them all. To live with our hearts open is to live and awestruck life, for all is gift, and all is wondrous.
God of dazzling mystery and of dark mystery, help me to know that all the seasons and days and nights of my life and in my relationships are held in the great Mystery of your love for us all.