20 December – ‘I love you’

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 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 will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
(Luke 1.26-38)

Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in through the window.
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

That is how Charles Causley’s poem ‘Ballad of the Bread Man’ begins. The annunciation, the name given to this event, to this announcing to Mary that she was to be the mother of God’s son, is one of the most depicted and celebrated events in the gospels. Walk around almost any art gallery and you will find as many annunciations as you will find crucifixions. The story of the young girl and the angel, of that ‘yes’ that Mary, in her innocence gives to God, has captured the imagination of artists and poets and writers and, of course, Christians in their worship in every generation. Causley’s slightly irreverent take on it is just one example and memorable for how he stages it.

My favourite depiction of the scene is in a painting that can be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 – 1937). He was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim and the way he depicts the scene is, to me, stunning. One writer commenting on Tanner’s work says of this painting that ‘The Annunciation’ (1898) ‘expresses the intensity and fire of religious moments, and the elation of transcendence between the divine and humanity.’

'The Annunciation' by Henry Ossawa Tanner

‘The Annunciation’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner

But why should the annunciation and the crucifixion be such popular subjects for depiction in Christian art? Perhaps it is because in both God is announcing something life changing to us, that we have responded to in every generation. When God through the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of his son, it is the incarnation which is being announced, that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3.16). On the cross something else is announced, the message of salvation, that God loves us so much that not only will he take flesh in Jesus and live as one of us, but that in his flesh and for that same love, God will die for us.

With love the Mother holds the Son

With love the Mother holds the Son

Mary was stunned at the message she received and we remain stunned with her and so stunned that we have to keep revisiting the news of incarnation and the news of salvation to make sure that we have the message fixed in our minds. And the message? It boils down to three words – ‘I love you.’ Those simple words keep us journeying as together we are Bethlehem bound.

God of love
in the womb of Mary you found a dwelling place,
on the cross you claimed crown and throne;
may I trust in your love
revealed in crib and cross.

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