Friday, November 02, 2007

Mary and Hope (pt.1)

Faith, Hope and Love are the three divine virtues - meaning that people are not able to possess or exercise them with their own powers. They are gifts from the Holy Spirit, and can only truly be experienced or exercised through the Holy Spirit. The idea that Faith is a gift from God is at the heart of wrestling with being a Christian, and the how and why of our salvation. Love is also easily seen to be from God and through God, since so much of what people do for themselves causes other people to suffer. I hadn't given the divine nature of Hope too much thought until recently. What I've come to realize is that it is the most absurd and jarring of the virtues. That's when you know it's from God.

I was thinking about the joyful mysteries, and - as I've liked to do recently - I tried to strip away the sentimentalism that has become so attached to their iconic nature. I try to re-picture something like the Annunciation, and blind myself to the traditionally venerated imagery Catholics have in their consciousness. Images like this El Greco:

This painting attempts to capture the glory of the Incarnation and depict it in a way that assists devotion, and draws the heart towards the wonder of God's gift, and the perfection of Mary's humility by accepting it. As a devotional prompt, it succeeds. You've got Gabriel and his angel cohorts on clouds, the Virgin Mother is catching her breath from the shock. All very true and appropriate, but the whole scene is too idealized. In fact it's more a representation of the Glory of God, then the humility of man. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does serve to put this pivotal event- no, THE pivotal event - in human history somewhat out of reach for us. This meeting between Gabriel and Mary is inaccessible to most people based on their day to day experience. It is a picture that tries to depict the Incarnation as a grand spectacle of the Heavens and if we're honest about it, we'd have to say it falls well short of what God's perspective of the event actually was. All these types of paintings do. We don't view things from God's perspective, and that was the purpose behind the Annunciation in the first place. As John said, "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." Here's a picture that I'm absolutely, totally in love with. (Ann, you sooo saw this coming, didn't you?)
This depiction of the same event has the same necessary elements, but its perspective and accessibility are completely different. In Tanner's painting, Mary is experiencing the Annunciation in a way that is much more intriguing to our everyday experience. First, she's an ordinary looking person - made even more ordinary by the fact she's been woken from her sleep.

Everyone can relate to that moment of being forced out of sleep - how we look, and what our surroundings are more likely to look like. This is what Tanner captures so beautifully and the profound point it communicates is that the Annunciation happened to someone who would have appeared quite ordinary to all around her. Maybe even less than ordinary since she did not have original sin and was not self-promoting in any way.

Who woke her up? In depicting the angel Gabriel as bright and formless tear in space, Tanner has definitely updated the imagery to something more meaningful to modern imaginations than little fat babies, or heroes from Greek mythology. This is an encounter with a being who is not confined to the physical world. Gabriel, after all, stands in the presence of God. It would stand to reason that without serious disguise on his part, meeting him would be a singular frightening and confusing experience. Think of John in Revelation, who was so awestruck by the angel that he nearly bowed to worship.

So here is this simple, unassuming girl in her typical un-sterile, non-idyllic environment being roused from her sleep by a being that exists beyond her sensory limits. The look on her face is one of genuine apprehension, but not (as you might expect from the Angel's appearance) one of fear. That's an image of Mary which does not bring her down to our level, but instead presents an opportunity for us to enter into a contemplation of the Incarnation as it actually was communicated:

From God - To Flesh - In the World.

The world we live and breathe in. The world that is frequently confusing, often painful, and rarely glorious. However because Christ came into the world, it's physical phenomena (and the ways we experience them) are mysteriously sanctified. And this is where the virtue of Hope comes into play. Look at that scene and imagine the exchange from Luke taking place there:

[28] And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" [29] But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. [30] And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. [31] And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. [32] He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,[33] and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;and of his kingdom there will be no end."

This young woman in Nazareth is being told that SHE has found favor with God. Not the Emperor, not the kings of the earth, not the priests of the Temple, but this young woman in her humble setting has found favor with God. And she is being promised the sum of all Israel's yearnings and then some!

Fast forward to the Visitation and you have Elizabeth saying, "How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Most images of this mystery are just as idealized as the Annunciation. What I enjoyed most about The Nativity Story was its depiction of this scene. The exchange has Elizabeth spontaneously abandoning her work to greet Mary with the Gospel words. While she's doing that people are mulling about them, concerned with their own activities, and they don't pay any attention. This pivotal greeting, and first acknowledgement of the Messiah (by another child in-utero) likely took place in front of a bunch of people who noticed nothing special about it. It was one woman talking to another. And in that meeting Hope is declared by Mary in the most beautiful and worthy prayer ever uttered by human lips prior to the Our Father. The Maginificat is the precursor to the Our Father in many ways since it is Mary's acknowledgement that God has chosen her flesh for his Son, and then Jesus in turn invites all flesh (including his mother) to call God "our Father".

to be continued...

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