Imagine, for a moment, that I were to ask you to picture the Annunciation, to hold in your mind an image of the meeting between Mary and her angel. And then imagine, for a moment, that we could project those images onto the walls of the church. Pop, pop, pop – little Annunciations all over the walls. If we could do that, I would guess that we might see that our images have some things in common – all of our Marys might be wearing blue, perhaps, or all of our angels might have great fluffy wings. I would guess, too, that we might see in our projections certain echoes of great art – the gentle grace of Mary with crossed arms and bowed head from the great Annunciation of Fra Angelico; Gabriel’s flashy rainbow wings from Van Eyck’s masterpiece; or the brilliant line of angelic light that illuminates a tired, or sheepish, or scared Mary huddling in the corner in the Annunciation of Henry Ossawa Tanner.
But now, imagine for a moment, that I were to ask you to picture the moment in this story that comes right at the very, very end. No, not the “Let it be” moment – after that. After the bright greeting, after Mary’s perplexed pondering, after the angel’s announcing and Mary’s questioning and the angel’s explaining and Mary’s assenting, right there at the very end, the moment when we hear, “Then the angel departed from her.” What if I were to ask you to picture that moment – the moment when the angel left? What would those images look like projected along the walls? As far as I can tell, there is little great art to help us here, no frescos entitled After the Annunciation, no triptychs devoted to depicting Mary sitting alone in a room with angel feathers floating down upon her head.
“Then the angel departed from her.” What did Mary do then? Did she shake her head, rub her eyes, press her hand to her heart? Did she jump up and peer around the corner just to see if maybe the angel were still there? Did she sit, still for a moment, place her hands on her still-flat stomach and wonder what it would feel like to be – how had the angel put it? – overshadowed by the power of the Most High? Did she stand up, brush off her cloak, and get back to weaving or walking or churning or cheesemaking or whatever it was she was doing before her world had spun up and out of her control? Did she laugh? Did she cry? Did she bow down and worship?
We, of course, can have no idea. There is no way for us to know what Mary did in that moment right after the angel departed from her. Scripture leaves this a blank. The annunciation is over, the message has been conveyed. Mary says yes, and so the angel departs from her. His business is done. There are no further instructions, no more details, no timelines, no explanations. There is no specificity about the coming of the Holy Spirit, no Lucan equivalent of the Dickensian “You will be visited by three ghosts, one at the stroke of one, and one at the stroke of two and the third, more mercurial will appear in his own good time.” There is no angelic strategy session on how to deal with the whisperings and sideways glances of nosy neighbors, no pre-partum planning with instructions about how to let out her robes or what herbs are good for morning sickness or what to do for swollen feet or a sore back. No, the angel just does his announcing and leaves. The annunciation is this great, holy, mysterious, enormous moment, but then it is over. The angel leaves, and the silence of his absence must have been absolutely deafening. If we take any time at all to imagine what that moment after must have looked like, to imagine what that moment alone must have felt like, we could easily be left wondering if Gabriel left too soon. Why did he leave her so unprepared for what she was about to face? Why didn’t he leave her with a guidebook, a plan, a mentor, a midwife, something, anything, to help her, this young, young girl, to bear up under this burden she had just faithfully and righteously accepted?
But look carefully at what the angel said before he left. Tucked inside his great Annunciation are these words, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing is impossible with God.” Ah-hah! Here is a second announcement, a little baby annunciation nestled inside the big one. You, Mary, are going to bear a child, and look! – your cousin Elizabeth is going to bear her own. And with this second, little annunciation, the angel gives the girl Mary something wonderful. He gives her the gift of a next step. No, he doesn’t explain every detail of what is going to happen to her. No, he doesn’t give her any practical advice for how to be ready for any of this. But he does give her, in this little annunciation, an idea of what to do next. Elizabeth is pregnant too, he says – six months along, too, so hurry up, go and see her.
And this is, of course, exactly what Mary does. In the very next verse, she goes right away “in great haste” to see her cousin Elizabeth, to sit with her, and learn from her, to watch her and share with her and confide in her and be held by her and finally to witness the miraculous birth of son and the miraculous opening of her husband’s mouth, and the fulfillment of God’s promises to them all. And in these beautiful moments of the Visitation, Mary grew in faith and in strength and in surety about her own miracle, about her own “Let it be,” her own future, her own song, and her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit rejoiced in God her savior.
In our lives, we will have moments of Great Annunciations and Little Annunciations. We will all, I hope, have moments when we hear the bells ring and the angels sing, when the path that God has laid before us is as well-lit as an airplane runway, when we know and feel that God is showing us something of great significance. In these moments, we will feel the solemn weight of God’s great announcement. Do this. Go here. Serve her. Leave this behind, pick this up, follow this path. But, I hope, we will also have lots and lots of little annunciations – dozens of them, hundreds of them – little tiny signs that we just might miss if we aren’t looking closely enough. These little annunciations might be casual words spoken by a friend that seemed meaningless at the time but that return again and again to us in our dreams, or an unexpected meeting with someone on the street who tells us just what we need to hear just when we need to hear it. These little annunciations might be symbols or signs or images that pop out at us in the middle of the day, in the middle of nowhere, or coincidences or accidents or serendipities that ultimately are proven far from coincidental or accidental or serendipitous.
Our God is a God of big signs and little ones, of grand annunciations and little, everyday announcements. God longs to reveal himself to us in both of these ways. No, perhaps not all of himself; perhaps he will not reveal to us the full plan with every single contingency or answer every single question we have. But he will always give us enough. He will always give us one more little step. The Lord himself will give us one more little sign, one more little annunciations, pop, pop, pop, all along the surface of our lives, showing us not only the way, but that even when the angels depart from us, we do not walk that way alone.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
25 March 2014, The Feast of the Annunciation
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia