A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on December 18, 2011.
Luke 1:26-38; Romans 18:25-27
Growing up Baptist I had no idea how significant the “Annunciation” was in the Christian faith or the Christian Church. The Annunciation refers to the announcement the angel Gabriel made to Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
Why is the Annunciation important? Because it contains one of the most succinct statements in the New Testament about the identity and nature of Jesus. Because it marks the first event in the lives of Mary and Joseph that will lead directly to the birth of their son, Jesus, the Savior of the world. And because it presents to us in living color how a true disciple of Jesus responds to an invitation from God.
For centuries, only our friends in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church paid much attention to the Annunciation. But, I’m happy to say these days more and more Protestants are recognizing and celebrating this event that is highlighted on the Fourth Sunday of Advent every third year.
Though we typically talk about the Annunciation in December just before Christmas the Church has historically celebrated the “Feast of the Annunciation” on March 25, nine months prior to December 25, for obvious reasons. So important was March 25 that when the first calendar emerged (in AD 525) that divided history into BC “before Christ” and AD “in the year of our Lord”, March 25 marked the original first day of the new year, signifying how all things became new through the conception of Christ.
One other interesting tidbit—even the Qur’an describes the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary. And the Muslim tradition holds that the Annunciation took place during the month of Ramadan.
Now because the Annunciation is such a pivotal moment in the story of Jesus, it has been portrayed by a host of artists in a multitude of paintings, especially during the Middle Ages. Many of the great masters like Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Donatello have captured this sacred moment on canvass. So has Leonardo da Vinci, and it’s his version of the Annunciation that we will focus on today.
Da Vinci actually produced two paintings of the Annunciation early in his remarkable career. One is rather small, and hangs in the Louvre in Paris. The other is much larger, and is mounted on a wood panel seven feet long and three feet high. The original hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and a copy hangs in our church. It’s the larger, Uffizi version of the Annunciation we will be examining today. Most art scholars agree that Da Vinci completed this painting of the Annunciation in the 1470s when he was around 20 or 21 years old!
Before we review da Vinci’s painting, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the story behind the painting. To be so important to our faith, the details we have about Mary are sketchy at best. We think Mary’s parents were named Joachim and Anna, and we know she had an older, childless relative named Elizabeth. We don’t know how old Mary was when she was confronted by the angel Gabriel—in those days girls were betrothed to be married as early as 12 years old. In all likelihood Mary was a young teenager. We know Mary was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, and in that day the period of betrothal lasted a year.
So Mary was living her teenage life when out of the blue Gabriel showed up and turned Mary’s life upside down. If you read the first chapter of Luke, you know that before the angel Gabriel greeted Mary, he informed an elderly priest named Zechariah that he and his barren wife, Elizabeth (Mary’s relative) would bear a son named John (later to become John the Baptist). Zechariah was a well-trained theologian who wasn’t born yesterday. He was not sure what to make of this Gabriel, who claimed he was an angel. And he was confident that old men and post-menopausal women don’t have babies.
So when he heard the news about baby John, Zechariah asked, How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years (Luke 1:18). Gabriel was not amused, and he made Zechariah temporarily mute because (you) did not believe my words, which (will) be fulfilled in their time (Luke 1:20).
Then the scene shifted dramatically. Gabriel left the beauty and dignity of Zechariah’s temple and journeyed to the backside of Israel to a small blue-collar village. Let’s listen again to this remarkable story.
In the sixth month (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy) the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
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 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 am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy; he will be called the Son of God.”
Now, let’s return to da Vinci’s painting. Even though Luke, the author of this story, is a physician by trade he leaves out a lot of details in his account of the Annunciation. We don’t know what either Gabriel or Mary looks like, or where this life-changing, history-changing conversation takes place. So da Vinci takes lots of artistic liberties, drawing from his own culture and life experience as he paints this scene.
Gabriel’s encounter with Mary appears to take place in the enclosed courtyard garden of a villa in 15th century Florence. The marble table or desk in front of the Virgin Mary is modeled from a sarcophagus (tomb) in a nearby Florentine church. In the near background you can see vegetation common to Florence. And in the far background is a harbor full of ships, probably more reflective of a scene from Rome.
The angel Gabriel is kneeling before Mary as he makes his famous announcement. The wings of the angel are particularly interesting, because da Vinci supposedly copied these wings from a bird in flight. Notice that Gabriel holds in his left hand a “Madonna” lily, and this along with the enclosed garden in the picture represents virginity.
In all these respects da Vinci’s painting resembles scores of other paintings of the Annunciation. But a couple of things distinguish da Vinci’s caricature of the Annunciation from most others.
Despite the sacred halo that adorns Mary’s head, her humanity is especially prevalent. She is young, blonde, well-dressed, and seated at an elaborately carved desk, her finger holding her place in a book she has been reading. Some have surmised that Mary is reading a Bible, but there’s no proof of that. She appears to be a fragile beauty from the upper class of Florence, innocent but educated, probably reading an Italian classic.
Why is this distinctly human view of Mary significant? Because da Vinci is reminding us that God inhabited normal flesh and blood to accomplish his mission of redeeming flesh and blood through Jesus. While the Virgin Mary was probably not from a wealthy class, neither was she hanging out in the temple like some ethereal angel, waiting for God to call. The doctrine of Incarnation says God left the purity of heaven for the relative pollution of earth. He bound his infinity to finite flesh, and freely enclosed his cosmic immensity in the confines of a womb.
While I am attracted to blonds, I’ll admit this attractive, blond Mary bothered me at first because I was looking for the more saintly Madonna we usually see. But the more I reflect on da Vinci’s view of Mary, the more I think it honors the vital theological principle of incarnation… “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
But there’s something else about da Vinci’s treatment of Mary that bothered me even more. You see, he also makes Mary look calm and confident, and that doesn’t square with the way Mary is usually portrayed, or the way I have always pictured her in this scene.
Many if not most portraits of the Annunciation depict Mary as beside herself when she hears the news that she will conceive a baby as a virgin, no less, and bear the Son of God, no less. Usually she is portrayed in a kneeling position with her face deeply troubled, her head bowed, arms folded over her chest. In other words, she is utterly overwhelmed. And utterly humble before God.
This caricature seems to square with Gabriel’s concluding words to Mary—“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
This is a high and holy moment, and for me the true focal point of the story. For so many years it was the virgin birth that most captivated me about the Annunciation, simply because the virgin birth was so difficult to accept intellectually, and I really valued the life of the mind. (I still do!)
Later in my pilgrimage I was drawn to the phrase, For nothing will be impossible with God. That to me was the pinnacle of this story. Because my faith so often wavered and waffled in the face of big obstacles, I wanted to hang my hat on that verse and claim it for my own as I risked big things for God.
But lately the phrase that draws me like a supercharged magnet is, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” Or put simply, “Lord, let it be.” This is the prototypical prayer of indifference in which Mary humbly surrenders to God and says in effect, “The only thing I want is what you want…I’m indifferent to all the rest. I’m willing to put aside my plans, and give up control of my life for you. Let my life be what you want me to be. Let it be Lord. Let it be.”
That’s why da Vinci’s rather confident Mary, sitting rather than kneeling, head up rather than down, one hand holding her place in a favorite book and the other hand raised in the air have been so bothersome! This can’t be the right pose. Or can it?
Psychologist and spiritual director David Benner has written a book entitled, Desiring God’s Will that has helped me on this point. Benner acknowledges that all of us as human beings are hard-wired to want our own way. WE can sing Have Thine Own Way, Lord a thousand times and we can praise Mary for bending her will before God, and yet at the end of the day we want our own way. We want our way at home and at school. At work and at play. And yes, even at church.
But if you study the scriptures carefully, you discern that the people who make the greatest impact for God come to the place Mary did when she said, “Let it be, Lord, let it be.” In fact, no less than Jesus says over and over that he came not to do his own will, but the will of his Father.
Da Vinci’s perspective helped me see that that Mary doesn’t surrender to God grudgingly, with fear and trepidation. She does it gladly, with confidence. How? Because Mary intuitively understands that the God who is about to turn her life inside out forever loves her more than she will ever know. And she can trust him with anything and everything. And when all is said and done, God’s Kingdom will prevail, on earth as it is in heaven.
So when you know God loves you, and you know God will prevail, then you can have a confidence, and a peace that passes all understanding. You can sit up, and look up, and reach up to a God who will never leave you nor forsake you, even if you are a young, unwed pregnant woman with a whole lot to explain.
One week before Christmas, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, much less next year. But Leonardo da Vinci says through his painting, and God says through his word, that if we trust him in everything, and become indifferent to everything but this will, all shall be well.
Let it be, Lord, let it be. And all shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.
“Prayer of Abandonment” by Charles de Foucauld
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you; I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures—
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
For I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.