Sunday, November 30

Annunciation: Encounter and Event

Butler: Annunciation
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary.

And coming to her, he said, "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you."

Before Advent, on March 25th, the Church celebrates the Annunciation, the encounter of the agent of God with a human woman. This encounter between the divine and humankind takes the form of an event: it happens in Galilee at a particular date in history, at a time when Elizabeth was already 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist. This event, this encounter, takes place between two individuals chosen for their task: Gabriel, who has a name and an announcement; and Mary, who brings her own history, which is the history of the people of Israel. What are we to make of such an extraordinary happening? The agent of God visits a human woman to entrust her with a great mission, a unique task. Dante calls Mary the "Fixed term of the eternal counsel" - a phrase that indicates a decisive initiative on the part of God. Once and for all, God has anchored His eternity in the womb of a mortal woman. God, whose infinity to so vast that no one could ever conceive it allows Himself to be conceived in the internal organs of a particular woman.

Such marks the historic transition of the covenant between God and humanity. God never abandoned his creation, never abandoned humankind. Because of sin, however, humanity became increasingly insensate to the motions of the almighty. God sent angels and prophets to persistently remain with human beings despite the increasing alienation which is documented in the Psalms: you worshiped the unhearing, unseeing works of your own hands and have become like them, deaf and blind to everything (I paraphrase).

The fruit of this encounter with the angel is a unique human person [human being]: Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God: human and divine, the living covenant (covenant: an encounter which is decisive) between God and man. For once — and for all — God is anchored to particularity, the infinite Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, never to leave. Too often we attempt to conceive the inconceivable God by thinking of Him as a vague force, potency, or energy, or with sentimental images: an old man with a long flowing white beard instead of looking to His face as He revealed it to us in Jesus and in the Church, that people which was formed from the side of her crucified Lord. This person, Jesus, is God. Those who saw Him saw God though they seldom perceived it. Those who listen to Him hear the voice of the infinite God. God made His presence among us so simple that a child could grasp it.

A child can recognize this presence, but can I? Do I? The Eucharist is the great sign on Sunday but also on Wednesday — when I have choir rehearsal. The place of His coming is here. The time is now. When I'm talking to a prospective buyer on the phone, or in person. When my kids are beating me up. When I get up in the morning too early after staying up too late. Sometimes when I've been at work doing something tedious I'll remember the children and women of Kerala, Uganda breaking rocks for their daily meals and how they were moved to share what they have for the hurricane survivors in Louisiana (documentary linked here). I'll remember this and know that the tedium I suffer I don't suffer alone.

Lately, I find myself at work forgetting the meaning of things. And so I pray, veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam — so that the Mystery who entered history through Mary will reach my heart through the circumstances in which I live. I discover any number of objections: my weakness, the lack of seriousness that I find around me, whatever I can think of to resist the beauty and meaning to which I'm called. Time and again, I'm discovering that Christ does not argue with me. He doesn't show me where my reasoning has failing. Instead, Christ conquers me through making things happen. A hundred things each day "batter my heart," many so petty and slight that I would feel silly in sharing them if I lacked certainty of their origin. For example, one day a guy from tech support in order to make way for a printer table put a potted plant at the entrance of my cubicle. And there are many other things besides, things that come along at the right time for me, things that are unexpected, things that are caused by the movement of Another: a palatable tenderness for me that makes itself known to me in my circumstances.

Image: Tanja Butler: Annunciation, 2008. Tradition in Translation: Two Contemporary Artists and the Virgin Mary: Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, Nov. 22 – Dec. 18, 2008.