Saturday, December 22, 2012

Family Pictures (Hebrews and Luke)

We all have lots of family photos, right?  Maybe they’re preserved in albums, or even carefully arranged in scrapbooks, with captions and other memories tucked in next to them.  Or maybe they’re piled up in drawers or boxes.  These days, lots of those precious photos might exist solely in internet form: in emails, on websites, in computer files – never printed out.  But in one form or another, we all save pictures.
Have you ever wondered what Jesus’s family pictures might look like?  Of course, he didn’t have any. He made his first appearance on earth about 1800 years too early for a family photo album.  But, as the writer of the letter to Hebrews reminds us, he was born into a body destined to be offered for us all  -- he was a human being, with a distinctive appearance, just like the rest of us.
And what about the rest of his family?   This week, my question has been: What might Jesus have said about his mother?  And it occurred to me that a child today often looks to photographs in order to learn the stories of his family from the days before he was born.  So what about those family pictures?  What about the pictures, similar to those we might take today, of an expectant mother?
There may not be family photographs, but there are LOTS of pictures, centuries of drawings and paintings and stained glass windows and sculptures, depicting the event we call the Annunciation, the story told in the Gospel of Luke of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. It’s long been one of the most popular of subjects for painters, and today I’d like to share two of them with you.  Two family pictures.  You have copies of them on the insert in your bulletins.

The older of the two, the one before you in which the angel and Mary are both garbed in pink and Mary wears a blue robe, reminds me of those formal family pictures we all take on special occasions: holidays and weddings and graduations and proms.  Everyone wears his or her best and gathers before the photographer in some sort of arrangement that allows all to be included. Today a new sort of these photos has become popular: we often take them on the beach or in a park, and there are often relaxed poses included among the more formal ones: children leaping, adults in unusual poses, family pets included. An entire bridal party about to fall into a lake, as happened when my niece’s wedding attendants posed themselves on a dock and the dock began to sink. “Wearing our best” may mean that we all wear jeans and matching shirts in shades of blue and white.  But we still put a lot of preparation and time into planning these pictures, which are intended to become family heirlooms.
That’s the kind of painting that Fra Angelico created, sometime between 1430 and 1450.  Fra Angelico – his name means “Angelic Brother” and is how he is known to us today  – was a Dominican monk known as Brother John to his contemporaries.  He painted several versions of the Annunciation, all of them formal and stylized, as was typical of the time.  How might we look at this version as one of the family pictures of Jesus?
It represents the scene and the angel and Mary, much as we might traditionally think of them: Formal in their relationship, quiet and modest and submissive in their demeanor.  The effect is similar to that of a formal portrait today: the figures seem to have stepped out of time,  into a moment we want to preserve as unique, as distinct from all other moments.  It’s not particularly realistic – they wear the clothing of the 1400s, and the setting is a European monastery; robes and architecture Fra Angelico and his friends would have known, not those of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth.  But it does represent a striking, out-of time moment.

Also, the artist includes all kinds of symbols reflecting that moment.  Our similar formal portraits include bridal bouquets, wedding rings, diplomas, caps and gowns, Christmas trees – we use symbols to highlight the importance of the event.  What does Fra Angelico include?  The Face of God the Father carved into the archway.  The light and dove of the Holy Spirit directed toward Mary.  The book on her lap, representative of the Word, the Word Jesus Christ whom she will bear.  And in the background: Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden by another angel, the archangel Michael.  Another moment in time; the distant event this new movement in time is intended to heal. 

What moment, exactly, is this? This painting depicts a moment toward the end of our Scriptural passage, which tells us that “Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” It’s that light of the Holy Spirit streaming toward Mary that tells us: She has said “Yes.”  Perhaps she and the angel bow to one another in humble acknowledgment that the pivotal event in history has been launched.  All depended on her: on her openness, on her receptivity, on her “Yes” to God’s movement in her life, on her willingness to fulfill her mission in life by becoming God’s servant.  And she has quietly but powerfully said, “Yes.  Let it be according to the will of God.”

Have you experienced moments like this in your own life?  Moments in which the clarity of God’s call in your own life has been unmistakable?  Experiences of great significance from which all else followed, times at which, had a photographer been present, he would have captured a turning point in your life?  Perhaps a marriage proposal over a candlelit dinner?  Perhaps a church service, or a long walk, during which you came to a decision about your education, or your life’s work?  Maybe an encounter in an office building, when you signed the mortgage papers for a farm, or the document committing yourself to military service?  Do you remember your own sense of openness, of receptivity, of willingness?
Maybe, maybe not.  We’re not always entirely sure, are we?  And the moment of transformation is not always one of such formality.

Our second painting, on the other side of your page, is perhaps a more accurate depiction of how many different emotions Mary might have experienced on that day on which God so dramatically intervened in her life. This painting (which just happens to be one of my most favorite works of art) is a much more recent one, created in 1897 by Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African American whose father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Tanner had traveled in the Holy Land, and his painting reflects the people and places he saw there.  He tried to paint surroundings of the Annunciation much as they might have existed in real time, rather than in a setting of his own time.

What do we see in this painting?  Certainly not the idealized, formal setting of other.  This painting is much more like one of our own snapshots of an unexpected encounter, rather than a formal portrait of an occasion for which we’ve planned. The room is a rough, simple, even disheveled setting.  Mary sits on her rumpled bed, somewhat rumpled herself, with a blanket hanging on the wall – not in a regal gown and robe, and not on a throne covered a ceiling of stars.

I think that the most astonishing feature of this painting is the angel Gabriel, who appears as a a column of light.  It’s one of the reasons I like the painting so very much.  How would an angel appear  to us?  We are used to thinking of wings and white robes because that’s what’s always been presented to us – but isn’t it possible that an angel would shine and shimmer with the light of God?  Isn’t a pillar of light perhaps more likely than someone who looks like we do, except with wings? 

I always think of this as a particularly uncompromising pillar of light: intense, filled with strength, communicating the passion of the possible transformation of all history.  Something that might rub off on you if it were to approach you.  Our hymn this morning says that Gabriel had “eyes of flame.”  What else could possibly be the case, on this day on which heaven met earth, than fire, flame, light?

And now, look at Mary in Tanner’s painting.  It’s difficult to know, looking at her, exactly which moment in the story this painting reflects.  Sometimes what I see in her face is surprise, puzzlement, wonder – what you might expect from a young, a very young, woman in her circumstances. I see that sentence early in the narrative: “[Mary] was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”    I see her thinking: I am a poor and insignificant girl in a poor and unknown family in a poor and small town.  How is it that an angel appears and addresses as “favored one.”  I would be surprised; wouldn’t you?

Sometimes I see skepticism – a hallmark of young people in their early teens.  Sometimes I see her asking, “How can this be?” Focused on herself for a moment, knowing that, although she is engaged to be married, she remains a virgin, so a pregnancy is an impossibility.  

And at other times, I see in that youthful expression a directness and calm as she looks into the face of her future – a directness and calm that can only reflect a peaceful  acceptance of all that the future would bring.  I see her receiving and accepting, as she will receive and accept the Holy Spirit, the assurance that “nothing is impossible with God.”  I see the confidence and courage in her response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word.”

I see in this painting the drama of human life entangled with God-life:  The combination of the mystery of the unknown and the concrete reality of daily life.  The blend of bewilderment and acceptance.  The confusing combination of question and answer.  The journey inward – How can this be?  I am not the person for this – and the journey outward – Let it be according to your word.

As we embark upon the journey of these final two days of Advent, our final two days of waiting and preparation, I urge you to ponder these paintings, as Mary pondered these things, in your heart.  Perhaps you prefer a formal family portrait, one in which all appears clear and certain.  Perhaps you’re more drawn to the snapshots, the moments of ambiguity, the ones which reveal more of a story than is apparent at first glance. 

Whichever your preference might be, the questions for you -- the questions at the heart of these paintings -- the questions as Advent, the season of waiting, becomes Christmas, the season of arrival, remain the same: What is God asking of you?  How do you respond to God?  Are you receptive?  Surprised? Skeptical? Hopeful?  Accepting? When the Spirit of God moves in your life, she brings with her the powerful capacity for a quiet Yes.  Have you found that Yes, as you await the birth of the Savior of the World?


  1. I do like this entree into the text via art. I've done this in the past and found it a "fun" way to preach. I hope you do to.

  2. You will be opening the eyes of your people with this amazing sermon focussed on Mary. The art will provide a tangible way for them to remember the content of the sermon and most importantly, will be a reminder of the challenge that God gives to each of us to make a decision as to what we will do with the Saviour of the world. God bless.

  3. Thank you so much for this. The paintings are two of my favorites, and the reflective commentary means I'll not look at them in the same way again.

  4. This post is absolutely incredible! I love this post so much! Thanks for sharing!