Listening to angels. The Annunciation, John Collier, oil, 2000
When we move into the realm of mystery, sometimes it may be explored more in the imagination than in reason. Throughout the centuries, great mysteries of our faith were revealed to communities in stained glass windows and in paintings. Scenes for the observer to enter, to sit with, to wonder at.
This week we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord by the archangel Gabriel to Mary. Mary’s ‘yes’ in the liturgical year marks nine months until Christmas. Beyond that, it marks a turning point in the divine economy, in God’s strategy to redeem a world fallen from grace. God embracing humankind.
In the scriptures, God’s medium of communication was commonly through angels. They wing their way through space and time bearing messages. For thousands of years, right up to the present, artists have explored this intersection of worlds in the Annunciation. The setting is frequently saturated with light. An abundance of lilies, the symbol of Mary’s purity. Often Mary is reading a book, suggesting the Isaiahan text which prophecies a maiden who is to conceive a special son. The angel inviting. Mary caught in many poses – humility, surprise, serenity or fear.
I find John Collier’s painting an engaging interpretation. Mary is cast as a schoolgirl, reminding us of her youthful years. The book and the lilies there, of course. An angel, whose clothes emerge from the background in colour and texture. Mary glances shyly or is it anxiously over the rim of her book? A drab dove, on a nearby gable, almost miniscule – God’s unobtrusive Spirit in waiting? Or is that the breath of God in the breeze that stirs her dress? Mary stands at the door of her home, on the welcome mat – “Be it done unto me”.
Ignatius Loyola, being steeped in the theology of his day, often referenced angels as messengers of God in his writing. When he speaks about discernment, about making significant decisions in our lives, he enumerates the true and trusted voices we ought listen to in order that our choices will be life-giving, loving and God-directed. Among these sources he includes angels. Now I don’t think many of us encounter too many feathery envoys in the day-to-day round of our ordinary lives. Yet there are messengers who come to the door of our being, whose Good News has its source in God, who bring us sage advice, who remind us of our strengths, who point to where we will find life, who help clarify the sifting of our options. People who know us well, whose counsel (from experience) we trust. They are our angels.
Denise Levertov was a twentieth century English-born American religious poet. She wrote a lengthy poem on the Annunciation. It is about angels and about making choices in freedom. It opens like this:
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
Yes, we all have our ‘annunciations’. Invitations. New beginnings. Options to be discerned. Ways to choose. We cannot say yes to each of them, nor should we. But if the angel is of God, Ignatius would suggest it’s a voice worth listening to. They point to that right gate, that sure path. Trust them.