Annunciation Perspective

One of the great developments in Western art was the use of graphic perspective in paintings: an innovation of the Italian Renaissance, starting in the early 15th century. Although I was never much a student of art history, I seem to have fixed in my mind the image of a Renaissance painting with a grid of converging lines superimposed on the picture itself to demonstrate the way perspective works.

In my imagination the painting supporting the perspective grid is a depiction of the Annunciation, perhaps by Botticelli. The Virgin stands, a little awkwardly, having risen from her prayers. Her outer robe is blue, but it is her rose colored gown that discreetly shows womanly hips and maybe even a hint of her already swelling belly. Gabriel kneels before her, lily in hand. The floor is tiled, its broad lines of grout suggesting the grid that my imagination is drawing on it. The angel has manly features but sports elaborate drag and gossamer wings. A window behind Gabriel opens out onto a scenic view that recedes along a river toward a distant city that I imagine must be Florence.

Among the various aspects of genius in a painting like this is the ability – enabled by the use of perspective - to draw the viewer into the scene; to make you feel like you are a part of what is happening, or at the very least an active observer. All those invisible lines of the grid guiding your eye, pulling you in, gluing your attention to this moment, this annunciation. I count two or three Christmas cards on my mantle this week with a view something like this.

And here we are, just days before Christmas, telling ourselves again the story of the Annunciation. Gabriel is a far better harbinger of Christmas for us than John the Baptist – so much less threatening, and better dressed, too. But this story of the angel’s visit to Mary is not just the introduction to the Christmas story that we are, by now, panting to tell and to sing about. The Annunciation has a power all its own that makes it worth stopping to tell and to linger in this moment to watch and to listen.

Up until now, what has Gabriel been doing – or all the other angels and archangels, for that matter? It has been too many generations to count since Jacob wrestled with an angel. And if God’s messengers have been busy, it must have been in rehearsals for Milton’s poem, still to come, because these messengers of God’s work in the world have not been much in evidence, according to the Scriptures. Indeed, the space between the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament invites us to wonder what God was up to. Why this gap in the record of his saving work in the world?

These days we wonder all the time about the gaps in God’s saving work in the world. We scratch our heads, wondering if the gaps aren’t longer than the periods of activity – which may be why people have found it so important to write it down when God seemed to do something wonderful: so much time might pass till the next episode, that everyone knew they would need a reminder of the last one. Many people today have just such low expectations of God: even if we believe in God, we don’t expect him to do anything for us!

It is impossible to know what expectations Mary had of God. I’m not sure that she had any expectations at all. I often imagine that Gabriel was going door to door in Nazareth - knocking and kneeling, lily in hand – and that Mary was the first person to let the angel in.

But here they are together, the angel promising that nothing will be impossible with God, the girl finding eloquence when merely saying “Yes” would have done. The image captured and re-captured by so many artists. And all these lines forcing our perspective into this moment…

Except that maybe the power of the Annunciation is not to be found most profoundly by looking into images of it. Maybe the power of the Annunciation is to be found in its perspective, when we dare to be virtually drawn into the scene; to stand in that space between Mary and the angel – their hands outstretched to one another –to occupy that space where the lines begin to converge, into which they draw us. Maybe the power of the Annunciation is only really shown to us when we dare to walk right into the painting and turn around.

And all of a sudden all those inward-leading lines of convergence are reaching outward. And the perspective is no longer directed in toward the beautiful tile floor, past this holy encounter, through the window and into Florence, or whatever city it is on the horizon; now we are looking out from the Annunciation.

And do we see how the perspective changes everything as the lines of convergence reach out to every corner of the world? Is there any place or any moment into which these lines of our new perspective cannot reach? Any dark secret or moment of despair? Any great triumph or small personal victory?

Do we feel as if perhaps it has not been so important that angels should be flying about doing something spectacular every hour of every day of every year for all time, in light of this one great moment of angelic visitation that reaches beyond its own time and into ours and every time?

Can we believe from this vantage point, as Mary did, that nothing will be impossible with God?

The Annunciation is, in a very real way, our point of view: the perspective from which the whole human story is told from this moment on, when nothing will be impossible with God.

So much of life is, in many ways, a matter of perspective. And after all, what do we have control of in our lives – not much – except the matter of our perspective? We can’t control the stock markets, the weather, or our children, just to name a few examples that might drive us mad if we didn’t adopt an appropriate point of view.

And this wonderful encounter between an angel and a virgin girl named Mary suggests itself to us, time and time again, as the only appropriate point of view for people of faith: a perspective from which nothing is impossible.

In these last few days before Christmas we have so much to do so much to worry about: not only Christmas preparations, shopping, and bills to pay, there are also jobs and houses and fortunes being lost, wars still raging, and new tensions building up between nuclear powers, loved ones who are sick or dying, or who have been recently lost to death, pain and sickness to learn to live with, not to mention disappointment. So much, so far beyond our control.

What better thing could we do to prepare for Christmas than to walk into this Annunciation scene, and turn around, and see what a wonderful point of view it is from here, with Mary’s eloquent Yes and the scent of Gabriel’s lily still hanging in the air. From this perspective even us cynical, modern, disillusioned people might almost believe that nothing will be impossible with God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
21 December 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 22, 2008 .