The Rev. Mary Vano
December 18, 2011
It was England, 1966. The rebellious avant-garde art scene was all the rage, when a young man went into a gallery to check out an exhibit by a new artist. One installation in particular caught his attention. There was a ladder in the middle of the room, above which was suspended a magnifying glass and a canvas. Our young man climbed the ladder, and looking through the magnifying glass found the only word written on the otherwise blank canvas. Printed in tiny little letters, he found the word, “YES”. That was the moment when John Lennon began to fall in love with Yoko Ono. Whatever you may think about Yoko Ono, and whether or not she was responsible for breaking up the Beatles, this was a profound moment for John Lennon. Later on he would say this about the experience: “It was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say NO.”
The avant-garde is not really my art scene, but I have been affected by art in a similar way. I love the paintings of the Renaissance, and my favorite iconography is from the Gospel that we read today. Of the many, many paintings of the Annunciation, there is one in particular that I especially love. It is one of Fra Angelico’s. I studied a little bit of art history in college, and this is where I first saw this Annunciation – as reproductions in books and on slides. It stood out to me then – Gabriel’s distinctively colorful wings, the scene set in what looks like an Italian portico, and Mary, appearing so aristocratic in her deep blue gown. The painting engaged me in these first encounters with it, but this is not where I fell in love with it. A year or two a later I traveled to Italy on a religious art and architecture tour. I believe we were in a monastery in Florence – one where Fra Angelico lived and painted. As I chatted politely with one of the others on the tour, we were led up a staircase. The staircase turned, and as I lifted my head to the wall that now faced us at the top, I suddenly stopped. There it was, this same Annunciation that I had seen before in pictures, but this time it nearly startled me. It was much larger than I had ever imagined it, and in the tender exchange between Gabriel and Mary I saw something that I had not noticed before. My group left me behind as I stood there taking it in. It’s hard to describe, but it had some something to do with the power of the exchange when Mary said “yes”.
I went right to the gift shop and bought a print!
That work of art, and many others like it, captures this extraordinary moment when Mary says “yes”, when she might have said “no”. In the little town of Nazareth, a young woman engaged to a man named Joseph is visited by the angel Gabriel. He says to her “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” The gospel writer says she is “perplexed” – which sounds to me like a rather subdued description of what might have actually taken place! Of course she’s perplexed! She’s encountering God! In all likelihood, she’s telling herself, No. No, this is not happening. This is a dream. This is my overactive imagination. No, this cannot be.
Does God really reach out to human beings? And if so, why would God choose me? No. The angel goes on to tell her what God is up to: “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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." What?! No! Mary objects. She is innocent and unmarried, yet betrothed. If found to be pregnant, Mary will face disgrace and maybe even death. No. This is mad. No. This is life-changing. No. This is dangerous. No. This is impossible. But Gabriel says to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God. And instead of saying no, Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She says, “YES”.
That word – “YES” – is so powerful. “No” puts up boundaries and barriers; “Yes” opens up a world of possibility – the possibility that something new can happen; the possibility of working together, being in relationship. For John Lennon, the hopefulness of YES made love possible. When Mary said yes to God, not only a child, but the hope of the world is brought to life. I think this is what causes painters to paint, and singers to sing, and writers to write about this story. It inspires with new possibility and new hope.
And yet, for many in our world, this hope, this possibility, is difficult to see. It seems so foreign. Perhaps it even seems like a bedtime story – a tale told to us to help us sleep at night. There are so many things in our world that seem much more real: poverty, crime, famine, hurricanes, immorality, threats to our lives, both internal and external, threats to the way we live our lives, both internal and external. It’s difficult to see the promises of God through our troubled world. So difficult that some would dismiss God’s promises as foolishness. Our default answer to the daily invitations we receive is no. No. This is impossible. No. This is dangerous. No. This is life-changing. No. This is mad.
But “The maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” That’s a quote from Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. If you’re familiar with this tale, then you know that certainly, Don Quixote was a little insane, but his gift was that he saw the world for what it should be, rather than for what it was. We are surrounded by reality, and reality is often askew. There is no doubt that the world is not yet as it should be. But do we accept the reality of our world as is, or do we continue to strive toward the day when God will transform us?
The story of the Annunciation to Mary is a story that gives us a glimpse of the world as it should be. It is a world of love – that boundless kind of love that reaches out to one and all and embraces us with that warm greeting: “Favored one, God is with you.” It is a world of peace, where we can all hear those words, “Do not be afraid”, and know that we no longer have to be driven apart by fear. It is a world of hope – hope that God was and is working within us always to fulfill the promises made to our ancestors. And it is a world of justice, where our authority is in Jesus Christ our Savior, who comes to redeem us all. To accept life only as it is is madness. To envision the world as it should be according to God’s will, and to write about it, and paint about it, and sing about it, and pray for it, and work for it – and to say yes to it - that is faith. Amen.