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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

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