Encounters: Annunciation

I am considering doing a book tentatively titled, THE SIX LIGHTS: A PATH TO PURPOSE. Attached is the first chapter. I plan to explore six familiar events mostly from Luke’s Gospel as somehow bigger than their historical place and time. Each event tells us something about ourselves and helps us understand how we come to know and understand our life’s purpose. The events are explored not only in my narrative but through works of art and photos that I believe can help us better understand that this isn’t something distant but instead is something we know very well.

I have for many years been intrigued by and drawn to the event described by the Church as the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Before you abandon this reflection, I ask that you hear me out and allow me to explain why. My thinking on this have been influenced by a number of different people and experiences over the years, some related to the Church, some not. The writings of people like Meister Eckhart, Carl Jung and many of his more contemporary enthusiasts, including Joseph Campbell, Robert Johnson, and Jack Sanford have been helpful to reframing my understanding of the event/narrative in broader terms. Additionally, I have been helped countless conversations with friends, colleagues and parishioners who patiently listened to and challenged me as I worked out my thoughts regarding these six Gospel events I describe as a path to purpose. Finally, my beliefs regarding the meaning of this and other Gospel stories were further shaped by engaging with hundreds of artist’s interpretations of the Annunciation as represented in paintings and other media. I have been fascinated with why artists and those who commission them insist on representing this particular event over and over again.

Simone Martini, Annunciation

At the outset, let me state that I believe the historical details of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel are only a jumping off point for understanding an event that appears to have many layers of meaning. In part, understanding the Annunciation requires us to engage it as more than an historical moment that Luke’s narrative, the Church, and thousands of artists have attempted to capture and celebrate.  There is nothing about this event or the artistic representations of it that simply attempts to record a supposed moment in history like, for example, Washington Crossing the Delaware. The difference is that the Annunciation event is an event requiring interpretation and internalization for it to have meaning. One could argue Washington Crossing the Delaware is subject to interpretation but it is more focused on remembering a harrowing and heroic event. There is a significant difference in how the viewer of the artist’s representation of these two events is invited to interact with the work.

So, to begin, refresh your memory by a quick review of the narrative that is described in Luke’s Gospel alone so we have a common starting point:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[a] 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

32 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 father David,
33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” 35 And 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[b] will be called holy,
the Son of God.

36 And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

So, there we are- the Annunciation. For Christians, it is a story heard countless times and one that has given rise to confusing teaching that some embrace and others have dismissed.

There are lots of ways to look at this text. Some want to prove its historical authenticity, others want to emphasize the miracle of Mary’s pregnancy without having had sexual relations, still others view it as a lesson in humbly accepting and trusting the word of God as transmitted through the angel Gabriel. For purposes of this reflection, let’s suppose the intent of the story is to tell us something about ourselves as much as it may have been an effort to describe an historical event. It was the 11th Century Dominican monk and mystic, Meister Eckhart who said (I am paraphrasing!)- If the event has only to do with Mary and her experience with the angel at a specific time in history, what good is it to me?

So, if the annunciation narrative is intended to tell us something about ourselves, we might learn by acting and interacting with the text as well as looking at how others have interacted with and interpreted it over the past two thousand years. What I hope makes this an interesting exercise is that the interpretations and commentaries we will use here are not the writings of biblical scholars but, those offered by the artists- the painters, sculptors, and as you will see, even photographers.

Carl Jung’s thoughts on archetypes seems especially relevant here. He suggested that archetypes were patterns, images, or motifs that dwelled in the so-called ‘collective unconscious’ by which he meant patterns or motifs, not learned, but intuited as true. As such, these patterns and motifs are available and potentially meaningful to all human-kind, across all cultures. They are, only vaguely perceived as true until animated in some form given them by artists- as paintings, myths, dreams, stories, music, and religions. These archetypes, discovered within different religions and cultures evolve into similar stories, myths and so on quite independently from one another. It is as if religions and cultures have each independently plucked these motifs from the same pond-the collective unconscious. In some sense, the expression of an archetype shows us something seemingly universally true. Joseph Campbell explored this in his writings and most popularly in a television series hosted by Bill Moyers called “The Power of Myth.


Duccio’s altarpiece, similar to Martini shows Mary recoiling at the news she will bear a son.

The archetype evoked in the Annunciation is that of an encounter with something otherworldly or spiritual that is life-altering and sets in motion a journey that is filled with the unknown. This is Mary’s journey but it is also THE spiritual journey that always begins with a breakthrough event in which a seed is planted somewhere deep within us and slowly grows often causing distress and confusion because it is at it heart a mystery. The curious thing to note about this archetypal annunciation encounter is that it ends not with an epiphany but with a question. Mary asks, “How can this be?” and ends by saying, “OK. Let it be so”. OK, so as it was pointed out to me, Mary’s acceptance of the angel’s announcement which closes the scene suggests the encounter ends with acceptance, not a question. Yet, the question remains and is woven into the narrative throughout. To suggest that Mary understands what has happened is to miss the point of her acceptance. The question remains even though she has accepted the word of the angel. I cannot help but feel that when she began to realize she really was pregnant, the question “How can this be?” arose again with a new urgency.  There is no great revelation or extraordinary wisdom granted the subject of the encounter. One might well say; the encounter has left her/us more confused rather than less so. But the lesson to be derived from this encounter, as in so many of the iconic biblical encounters is that they always seem to set in motion a journey that is undertaken with little understanding about where it will lead us and a great deal of faith and trust that it is the right course of action.

Fra Angelico: Note that nothing separates the angel from Mary

Over the past many years, I have traveled to many of the great art museums of the world to study (not in an academic sense) or contemplate depictions of the Annunciation. There are many commonalities in these representations that require the viewers interpretation. Mary is often depicted in a walled garden, sometimes reading her Book of Hours (book of prayers). An androgynous angel abruptly enters the walled Garden where Mary is reading her prayers. She is often depicted as recoiling as if stunned or frightened. The angel who is sometimes kneeling, sometimes standing, and sometimes airborne (depending on the artist’s theological/Mariological posture), carries a Lilly (symbol of humility and devotion) and extends his hand in a gesture of blessing. Mary often crosses her arms over her chest (a gesture for the reception of a blessing). The angel and Mary are most frequently portrayed in a manner that emphasizes their separation. Each may stand in their own portal separated by a column as if to emphasize they dwell within different worlds. But the artist most often wants to show that the world of the angel (the sacred) has touched the world of the flesh (the mundane) and that life is utterly changed.

Contemporary painting of the Annunciation showing Mary as a modern-day young girl.

If we look carefully at the essential elements of the Annunciation story it invites us to view the meaning of this event more broadly. The archetypal quality of the event no doubt accounts for why the event is painted over and over and why the Church has embraced it so enthusiastically, and why, quite frankly it has remained for millennia such a fascinating story. Quite apart from whether it was or was not an historical event, the story is fundamentally about a breakthrough experience in which the world of the sacred breaks into the world of the mundane. In this story, life is changed not by the revelation of any great truth, but by the questions the encounter raises. For us who view these artistic interpretations, we become voyeurs peering at the innocent and unconscious Mary, who we know will be changed by the experience. She has no idea, but we do. We know that plenty of trouble lies ahead. Joseph will contemplate calling off the marriage, people will talk about her, she will leave town to seek out the company of her cousin, Elizabeth for counsel who, we know, too is pregnant. Given more than a moment’s thought, we recognize the reason for her visit- During this encounter Mary is told that her cousin Elizabeth has had a similar experience and it is natural that she would seek out the company of another who may be able to help her make sense of what has happened.

The story becomes still more interesting when we entertain the role we might play in this archetypal event. Does it make any sense for us to think of ourselves in Mary’s circumstances? As a man, how I could I possibly know what Mary has experienced. This is where perhaps the reader needs to look at the archetypal aspect of the story. As an archetype, the story transcends history and gender. An encounter with the sacred can ignite what may begin as a small flame somewhere deep within that grows and grows. But what exactly is an encounter with the sacred. I have never had an encounter with an angel or spoken with a burning bush.

Photo by Paul Strand
James Dean smiles at us from a coffin inviting us perhaps to ponder our mortality.

I stated above, perhaps a bit dramatically, the sacred crashes into the mundane- one world bangs up against the other. Two points: I use the word sacred in the manner of John E Smith, author of EXPERIENCE AND GOD, and distinguished Yale University philosopher in the late 20th century. He spoke of the sacred as any experience which forces us to ask the big questions about life…The experience invariably facilitates a crisis moment-maybe good, maybe not so good. Sound familiar? The encounter with the sacred offers not an answer but a whole new set of questions. Perhaps you believe you have never had such a moment, but reflect more thoughtfully on your own life experience with the understanding that we rarely know we are having an encounter with the sacred until it is over; until it has passed. The sacred comes crashing into us…when the baby is born and you find yourself in tears, when a loved one dies, when your child does something to remind you they are becoming an adult, when someone quietly takes your hand in a particularly difficult moment, the experience of surviving the failure of a marriage, losing a job, falling in love. We may not recognize the presence of the sacred because we are too preoccupied with the crisis it has facilitated. But when we have time to thoughtfully reflect, we find ourselves asking the big questions. Annunciations are crises that inspire us to ask, “What does this (life) mean?” “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” “What am I supposed to do now?” or as Mary put it “How can this be?”. In some way we might call them turning points or tipping points in that we find ourselves on the cusp of change but the experience of the sacred drives us toward existential questions. There is a difference between wondering if I am in a dead-end job and wondering how am I supposed to live my life. The truth is we are literally awash in experiences that compel us to ask the big questions. The annunciation was not a one-time event that belonged to a moment in history, but an ongoing dialogue constantly playing out between the sacred and the mundane.

Gentileschi’s St. Cecilia

So where, you ask, are the angels? Almost invariably, we learn of their presence retrospectively. Angels or ‘messengers’ may not be seen but they are often recalled and work their way into the re-telling of such an event or the artistic recollections of such events. The artist typically uses angels to convey divine intervention. Take a look at Gentileschi’s St. Cecilia and the Angel which captures this sentiment; the angel’s presence simply proposes to show that the music she composed was divinely inspired. Imagine listening to a great composer/performer and be transported by their music. Perhaps you would say they are inspired (i.e. filled with the spirit)- a hint that there is something at work in the event greater than the artist. But it is not only the artist, but in this case, you the listener are filled with wonder and amazement. “How can this be so beautiful?” you ask yourself. You might consider when you find yourself in this sort of experience that you have stepped out onto sacred ground and are in the presence of beauty (or perhaps you’d rather call it an angel.)


Statue of the Visitation in Ein Karem

To accentuate an earlier point, let me state again that annunciations are encounters that drive the big questions rather than offer epiphanies. In this sense, they typically represent the initiation of a period of reflection (the jumping off point for archetypal journey). Certainly, that was the case for a confused Mary in Luke’s narrative. As you may recall, the Angel Gabriel conveys to Mary that her cousin Elizabeth too has conceived. The narrative states that Mary went “with haste” to visit her cousin. She seeks out the company of her cousin Elizabeth who will surely understand these troubling and confusing events.

Consider for a moment just this part of the story and how it might make sense to you, the contemporary reader. An abrupt encounter with the sacred has left you feeling changed. Something new is being created within you. A seed has been planted as for example the seed of an idea, the seeds of your own renewal. Something is happening to you which you cannot fully understand; only that it is happening…you are changing. You are preoccupied with this emerging new creation and give it all your attention. The cultivation of your new creation invariably takes you in new directions. And what does your family make of this? What do your friends all say? Well, of course you know exactly what they say- “What’s wrong with you? You seem different. You never have time for me. What’s become of the person I knew?”” They of course, like the ‘old’ you. And perhaps they begin to think that you are unwell; perhaps mentally unstable or in some sort of mid-life crisis.. You don’t dare tell them about your encounter because it would be off to the psychiatrist with you! The upshot is that such encounters are typically isolating. So, what do you do. You seek out the company of one who will understand this strange turn of events. And, of course, this is precisely what Mary did in the event that has been called the Visitation, the subject of the next chapter.

One wonders if it all become clearer for Mary over time? Does it become clearer to ourselves? I suppose one way to appreciate all this is to see it all as a sojourn. As some things may become clear along the way, we are introduced to new mysteries which I discuss in the chapters that follow. At the end of her gestation, it remains confusing to Mary, who the story indicates says little. Instead, the narrative states, she ponders what it all means in her heart. Any encounter that that brings us into a clash with the sacred takes time to make sense of, but the gestation period; the period between the encounter and gaining some appreciation for what the encounter might mean and how it is changing us yields little more than a vague sense that things are different.

Dorthea Lange
Mary, we are told ponders thes events of the annunciation saying little.

Further and beyond anxiety-ridden anticipation, who can possibly understand what life will be like when gestation ends and we have a new creation to care for and nurture. How many parents understand what their child’s birth means for them? Virtually none can know how their child will evolve and grow into their own person. Similarly, as with the birth and nurturing of an idea, a work of art, a story, a new vocation; they will gradually gather a life of their own and no longer be ours alone. When the mystery of what we have been carrying is finally made manifest changes everything, it also only signals the next leg of this journey. We rarely fully understand the experience of annunciation events even as we undertake the journey they invite us on until much further along. Perhaps it is sufficient to simply understand that when one brushes up against the sacred and says yes, a change in your life’s trajectory has been set in motion.

Richard Dreyfus sculpting his mased potatoes in Close Encounters

Indeed, the confusion of an extraordinary encounter is itself part of the archetype. Do you remember CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND? Richard Dreyfus has ‘an encounter” with aliens, after which he becomes obsessed with an image he cannot quite articulate but feels compelled to try. His initial encounter has filled him with questions and a desire to find an answer by following a path he appears to vaguely understand. There is an image that he has in his mind that will not go away and he is compelled to somehow replicate it. The image, it turns out is the Devil’s Tower Monument behind which he ultimately encounters the mother ship belonging to the aliens. Remember him trying to carve the Devil’s Tower in his mashed potatoes? Remember how he heaves hundreds of pounds of mud into his living room so he can make manifest what he sees in his mind but cannot articulate? He has been engulfed by a set of questions…a mystery that bit by bit he grasps. Finally, he believes he must journey to the Devil’s Tower Monument for reasons he does not know. When he arrives, he believes he has discovered the object of his longing. It is a great metaphor for the Annunciation. Is there something similar at work here in the hundreds of artists who painted the Annunciation over and over again perhaps seeking to understand and represent its deepest meaning.

Caravaggio’s The Call of St. Matthew
Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saul

One of the lovely surprises about understanding the annunciation more broadly is a growing awareness that such experiences are ubiquitous. These experiences are not just for the privileged few and certainly not merit-based. The artist Caravaggio seemed to relish capturing these life-changing annunciation moments among the undeserving. His dramatic painting depicting call of the tax collector, Matthew shows him hunched over his money greedily counting it while Jesus, who stands at the other side of the picture extends his arms with a pointed figure toward Matthew indicating the call of Matthew. Matthew is completely unaware, preoccupied with the money but his friends appear to be incredulous seeming to ask, “Why the hell would you want him? He’s a tax collector (read: scoundrel)!” Caravaggio does it again with Saul who has made it his business to persecute Christians. In this work Caravaggio has shown Saul thrown from his horse and blinded. Such a perfect metaphor for the arrogant Saul up on his high horse being knocked to ground only to realize he cannot see. That the story of Saul’s conversion suggests he became blind only emphasizes the fact that we are set on a path to a destination we do not and perhaps cannot know. Aren’t we all blinded for a time after being taken down?

The Repentant Magdalene

The artist Georges de La Tour did a series of paintings that involve dramatic candlelight. Two of them- The Repentant Magdalen and Joseph’s Dream powerfully illustrate encounters with the sacred. Mary Magdalen is looking at herself in the mirror by candlelight, her hand resting on a skull. The message is unmistakable. Her sacred encounter entails a literal moment of self-reflection is to look at herself and perhaps see herself in a new way. Her hand resting on the skull suggests that such an encounter is also informed by the recognition of her mortality. The title of the work itself suggests, she is changed.

Joseph’s Dream

Joseph’s dream described in the first chapter of Matthew, recalls his decision to quietly call off the marriage with Mary because she is pregnant. Yet an angel comes to him in his sleep reassuring him that she has not been unfaithful and that his plans to marry her should not change. Was it actually an angel? Does it matter? It was a dream, an encounter, with something that forced him to question what he believed and abandon it for something new. Joseph has changed.

All of this, powerfully illustrates the notion that what can be said about Mary, about Paul, about Matthew, about Joseph, and so many others can too be said about ourselves. These events transcend their historical context and give substance to the archetype of the unexpected and undeserved encounter that offers not an epiphany but forces upon us a question that, if taken seriously, causes us to wonder what we are all about.

The way we viewed our world, our values, our ideas now somehow looks askew. Something new; a different way of seeing is in the works… as we struggle with a new set of questions, we find ourselves asking once again- what does this mean for me? What does this mean I’m supposed to do?

Mark Stock, The Butler’s in Love

Is it too strong to say that the sacred crashes into us? I don’t think so. There is certainly an emotionally violent quality to such an encounter. The tearing down of one set of beliefs as no longer suitable before adopting something new. There is an element of loss- of what we believed and who we were- that evokes a grief of sorts. That such an experience is violent is an understatement. The element of agony in this experience is a familiar one. Remember when Jesus is presented in the Temple and Simeon warns Mary …this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel… and a sword will pierce through your own soul also…” (Luke 2:34-35).

Once again, let’s widen our understanding. Such encounters while all perhaps inherently spiritual may be overlooked when it comes to the agony love is capable of inflicting. Mark Stock’s painting, “The Butler’s in Love” certainly captures this in a way that I find particularly touching. You can be sure the butler is not seeing angels or any divine hand in his experience of love at this point. No, Stock makes clear to us, however, that an encounter has taken place and the now butler is in crisis asking the big questions- what am I supposed to do with this?? How has my life been changed?

Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa

The powerful sculpture by Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Theresa again drives home the point that annunciations are life altering and sometimes rather explosive experiences. St. Theresa swoons as the confusing figure of a smiling angel holding an arrow prepares to pierce Theresa’s heart.  I love this piece because it demonstrates the true impact of such encounters and how confusing they can be. And what can we conclude of Bernini’s work? Must the life we have led die, as it were, so we may embrace something new?

Photo by William Eugene Smith

To further illustrate how the state following an annunciation/encounter is confusion, recall just a few of the better-known biblical stories that demonstrate this. Remember how the man Saul (who becomes St. Paul) is struck blind. And of course, Israel’s aimless wandering in the desert reflected this element of confusion. The disciples seemed in a constant state of confusion while Jesus was alive and even after his death, as for example on the road to Emmaus. And, of course, Mary’s peculiar and confusing pregnancy. While I am tempted to suggest that we can only guess what the confusion must have been like for Mary, for Paul or any of the disciples, this misses the mark. We do know what it’s like! Is there anything dissimilar about such an experience today? Again, this should underscore that such encounters (call them annunciations, call them ‘close encounters- are attractive to us because we know the stories well; we know them intimately because they are our own. Again, my hope here is that you will come to see this still more clearly as we explore the narrative, artistic representations, and suggestive iconic photographs.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

In the chapters that follow, I will continue to develop the common elements in such encounters and how the encounter evolves into a mature spirituality. I have identified six critical events from the Gospel narrative that I believe have similar archetypal qualities that transcend their uniquely historical setting, and establish them as touchstones for all spiritual journeys in all times. To help readers see beyond the historical event that many of us have been raised to understand was static happening once and for all some two thousand years ago, I have illustrated this book with paintings and photos that I believe capture both historical and contemporary expressions of the same realities. In this manner, I hope the reader may discover that encounters with the sacred and the journey they set us on belong not just to history, but are very much a part of our contemporary life. The traditional images that have surrounded our understanding of sacred encounters are limiting and have inhibited our capacity to see the equally vivid and spiritually rich images that are very much a part of our lives today.

To do this, you will need to be open to challenging the assumptions you have built based on Sunday school, unimaginative preachers, and thousands of art works that have probably done more to shape your belief than you may be aware of.

Photo by Edward Weston
Tina Modotti, “Manos”

Years ago, I had the good fortune to be a guest for a week at the Getty Museum with full access to their collection of photos. It was looking at the hundreds of photos I had access to that helped convince me that annunciations were happening all the time if we had eyes to see. Consider the photos here by William Eugene Smith, Mary Ellen Mark, and Edward Weston all of women appearing, at least to this viewer, to be contemplating something potentially life-changing. Imagine superimposing an angel in Weston’s photo of Tina Modotti as in Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa. Compare St. Theresa’s face with Tina Modotti’s.  And, consider Mary Ellen Mark’s photo. Is this young woman in mourning? The expression on her face and body language is something of a mystery but she might be angry, hurt, vulnerable, confused, and looks to be on the cusp of a change. Consider William Eugene Smith’s photo of a nun that suggests contemplation and wonder or the perhaps she has forgotten something, or still she may only be thinking about what to prepare for dinner at the Convent.  evening’s dinner. The meaning we ascribe to these and the other photos included in this book reminds us that certain images do have the capacity to suggest something extraordinary to the viewer if we allow ourselves to carefully consider them. Going forward, I will share with you some of my favorite photos that at first blush may not seem at all of the same sacred quality as a Duccio or a Fra Angelico or annunciation. But I urge you to engage with the photograph. Use your imagination and ask questions about what you see. The photographs I will share are prized because, at some level they tap into something within us that helps us understand something important or conversely urges us to consider we are viewing something profoundly mysterious and even unknowable. I hope to choose those that seem somehow to have the capacity to help illuminate a path to something deeper and indeed precious and sacred bringing vibrancy, life, and a sense of ownership to these seven stories we mistakenly believed were never our own.

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