BY DONELLA JOHNSTON
Tuesday’s Feast of the Annunciation reminded me that the Annunciation used to annoy me when I was younger.
Specifically, Mary annoyed me. It sounds probably a bit sacrilegious to say that about a Catholic feast day, but let me explain.
In my understanding at the time, Mary’s passive, meek response to this incredible announcement from the angel that she was going to conceive the “Son of the Most High” was just too much; mawkish even, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). To me then, Mary just seemed to accept this impossible imposition with such unnatural composure and humility.
There’s no way in the world I would accept someone breaking into my life, imposing their will on me in such a way! Or so I thought back then. However as I get older and my own life unfolds in ways I would never have predicted, I start to see a deeper truth to the story of the Annunciation.
Mary doesn’t mindlessly accept the Annunciation. She is “perplexed” by the angel’s words and “ponders” their meaning (Lk 1:29) and she doesn’t let the angel go without asking some questions, “How can this be...?” (Lk 1:34). The angel replies, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37).
Joan Chittister writes eloquently about this; “Mary was not used... Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God...She was made an equal partner in the process” (In Search of Belief: 2006, p. 98).
As a young woman, the thought of someone else’s will getting in the way of my own was so unpalatable that all I could see in the Annunciation was Mary’s submission. I couldn’t see the great inner strength, the amazing courage and unflappable faith that it takes to let go and accept God’s wish for our lives.
The Annunciation calls to mind Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem “Weary in Well-doing” (1864):
I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
And said them nay.
Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so.
I go, Lord, where thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with Thee?
My favourite image of the Annunciation is Lorenzo Lotto’s L’ Annunciazione c. 1535 (pictured). Mary kneels in prayer in the foreground, the bible open behind her (maybe she’s reading Psalm 39).
Mary’s hands are raised palms-out in perhaps surprise or perhaps in agreement. Her face is very serene. Her chin tilted down and her eyes raised up and out towards the viewer. She dominates the picture with the kneeling angel in the middle ground and God up in a cloud in the background.
There’s a freaked-out looking cat in the middle of the picture running away from the beautiful fleur-de-lys-bearing angel, indicating the disturbance of domestic harmony. Interestingly, at first glance God looks like he’s holding a hand out to Mary to drag her up into the clouds but on closer inspection, he is actually holding his hands together in a prayer-pose as if he is begging Mary to take on this role, this imposition, this honour as the Mother of God.
It is a scene of God breaking in to domestic order and a young woman who accepts her God’s will for her life with a grace and dignity beyond her years. Just behind the running cat there is a little side-table and on it sits something chalice-shaped that looks like it could be an egg-timer, a reminder of both sacrifice and the temporal nature of life:
“Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a few handbreadths
and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight” (Psalm 39: 4-5)
The struggle voiced in Rossetti’s poem and the inner turmoil Mary must have experienced after the disturbing intrusion of the angel is echoed in Psalm 39:
“And now, O Lord what do I wait for? My hope is in you. ... Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand” (Psalm 39: 7-10).
It is hard to discern God’s will for our life. Often times what feels like a curse ends up being a blessing - something that challenges us to stretch and grow like a pregnant woman and allow God into our lives. Joan Chittister writes that the Annunciation is not about imposition; it’s about invitation; “God asked a woman a question...Mary chose to say yes” (2006: 98).
Needless-to-say, these days the Feast of the Annunciation no longer bugs me. In fact, now I look forward to it because it reminds me to say “yes” to God’s invitation to be who God wants me to be.
Donella Johnston is Director for the Office for the Participation of Women (OPW) and as the Executive Secretary to the Bishops' Commission for Church Ministry (BCCM).
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