Image: The Annunciation, by Andrea del Sarto, 1512
I’ve spent the past several days looking at pictures from across the centuries of the Annunciation. They’re all a little different, as each artist takes the story and the history of its imagery and makes it his or her own. So, while there’s usually a lily or two and a dove or a golden shaft of light, there is often variation in how Gabriel and Mary are portrayed.
In some images the angel hovers over the girl. In others, the angel seems to be taking the matter of the conception of the Christ child into his own hands. In others, she is kneeling in front of Mary. Many angels are very androgynous and some are definitely female. In one scene, Gabriel is behind Mary, barely visible, whispering in her ear. And in yet another, H. O. Tanner’s from 1898, the angel is a pillar of light standing in Mary’s bedroom.
Note this one by Jacek Malczewski-Zwiastowanie. Look at the 20th C. garb, simple bedroom, rumpled spread doubling as angel wings. What’s he up to, that boy? And how will she respond?
In all of the images of the Annunciation the dyad — the angel and the girl — are together. Gabriel delivers the news in different ways and Mary receives it differently, too. But the two are always paired, the giver and the receiver, the spirit and the human woman.
When my partner, Rosean, was discerning a call to the diaconate, she said to me one day, “I need an angel to visit me.”
My immediate reaction was a bone-deep apprehension. “Watch out what you ask for,” I said. Angels are dangerous. They force you out of the world you know. They nudge you into scary and threatening new pathways. It’s no accident that they are always saying, “do not be afraid.” We are — and we should be — afraid, no matter their invective to the contrary.
But we, too, are called. We are in our own dyad with the angel spirit who is the messenger from God. No matter how simple or ordinary we think we are, no matter how unsuited for a heavenly plan, there is an angel waiting. In the corner of our reading room or in the bedroom next to our four-poster, or in the garden or the church sacristy or the kitchen or the transept of the cathedral, the angel waits for us.
“Hail, favored one,” the fiery spirit says to us. Kneeling or hovering over us, proffering that blasted lily, they let us know that we have a destiny — that it is we who are called to give birth to the Holy. And if that takes us away from our usual haunts, our habitual ways of thinking, our common views of things, too bad. God created each of us to give birth to God, each in our own way. Our scary angels are there to wake us up to what we were all along born to do.
The only question left to us, really, is — will we say yes?