Saturday, December 8, 2018

Harlem Annunciation II

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
—Denise Levertov, "Annunciation"

All angel-kind was amazed by the great deed of Your Incarnation; for they saw the inaccessible God as Man accessible to all.
—The Akathist Hymn

I am harping on angels. Perhaps this is stubborn, untoward, lazy thinking (or all three!). But it seems to me that any image of the Annunciation that relies on the image of an angel as a distinct human entity like you and I showing up and telling Mary what she is to do is not only always going to be violently unsatisfactory but is actually going to violently miss the point of the Annunciation.

I know angels are created spirits having understanding and free will, so clearly they are free agents in some sense of the term. The Angelic Doctor attests that angels do appear to us in bodies that are publicly visible. Certainly, angels of the Lord can come to us in private movements of the heart, but angels can also assume bodies. "The body assumed is united to the angel not as its form, nor merely as its mover, but as its mover represented by the assumed movable body," writes Thomas. This does raise the question: where does an angel get one of these bodies. It may seem spurious to inquire into the mechanics of the miraculous, but such is the history of human thought.

I would like to take Thomas' article as permission to acknowledge that there is some space to imagine the appearance of angels as something more inherent to our energy-efficient universe than an angel forming a miraculous human body out of nothing, fitting it for its purposes, then evaporating into the clouds. There is more thinking to do here. But, for the time being:

The grace of the Annunciation is not in the simple fact of its occurrence. Mary's annunciation was not full of grace because the situation was unique (or at least, that is not how the scene is presented). The event is not notable because of Gabriel's arrival. God love that angel, his presence in scripture does seem a bit expected if not quotidian, particularly in Luke's Infancy Gospel, as this is Gabriel's second appearance in the space of just one chapter. I get that Gabriel is an apocalyptic figure, whose presence is a literary trope signifying the arrival of the eschatological figure of the Messiah. I get it. But Gabriel is not the significant figure in this pericope! In the story immediately preceding this one, he is that figure to a T. In his encounter with Zechariah, Gabriel appears wrapped in smoke and incense and general ominous mystery. There is a whole dialogue when he explains himself to Zechariah. It is majestic. It is glorious, it is awe-ful, it is an epiphany entirely out of the ordinary.

But none of this pomp and circumstance surrounds Gabriel's visit with Mary. He is simply sent, and simply greets her. In fact, it's a bit anticlimactic after the theatrical encounter between Zechariah and Gabriel. The dramatic tension is depleted.

No, what makes Mary's Annunciation unique experience is not the event, but Mary's answer. The event, I have a hunch, is fairly (if not, I'll grant you, entirely) ordinary:

I do not know how angels speak to us, but indeed there must be annunciations of one sort in our lives at certain points. I think the bodies that surround us maybe at one time or another have been commandeered by an angel to speak. Not in a gross body-snatching sort of way. But inspiration oozes out of this grand universe, and surely sometimes we speak what we barely understand, only to find that what we've spoken is revelation. Are not the messengers of God all around us. Surely there are moments of decision when angels speak to us, too. Perhaps not always, not every day, but more frequently than never.

And, generally, I flub those moments. The angel speaks: whether that is the kind man with glasses praying compline next to me on the sofa, chance words spoken in a French documentary, or the thumping of my own heart—I know that in these quiet compunctions and simple colloquies of conscience, there is a messenger of God.

And yet I do not listen. I ignore. I already have an agenda, a plan, and my own will trumps Gods.

The angel says: ecce, the will of the Triune God, and I do not offer a corresponding ancilla domini.

No, the angel visiting, with a report from the Most High is not out of the ordinary. In fact, it happened today. My response was also fairly consonant with humanity's from the dawn of our creation: not your will, but mine be done.

Mary's response is what is extraordinary that breaks open our ordinary mediocrity, and fills it with salvation.

Mary's response is what is magnificent. And this is not a grandeur that fell upon her in an instant. This is the work of a woman, who, from the very first moment, offered her ecce, a quiet fiat, to all the moment of heavenly negotiation that dogged her steps each day.

To Mary, indeed, the world was not her own theatre, but a space to meet God. To her and her alone, perhaps, creation was as it should be. Not simply a world to mold in one's own image and likeness, but a single Word. Each breath, to Mary, was a yes to that Word. Until, one day, that Word came to life even in her womb. We all long to produce something good and beautiful, to turn our lives into an act of service for that which we have made and love. Mary produced one good, one beauty, one Word. The fruit of her life of loving this loved world with nothing but pure love was Love.

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