Every December, Kathy and I drive up to New York, to spend a few days at Holy Cross Monastery at West Park. We began last Tuesday morning, and as we got in the car we heard the unfolding story of the Taliban siege of the Pakistani school in Peshawar in which 145 people—132 of them school children—were killed. The day before we had followed the account of the hostage taking in Sydney, Australia in which 3 people were killed. And the day before that we observed the second anniversary of the Newtown shootings in which 28 people—20 of them children—died. And of course in the weeks before all this we had witnessed the protests over the failure of mostly white Grand Juries to indict white police officers in the killings of unarmed black men.

It’s getting to the point in our world where opening the paper or turning on the news is a courageous act. Just yesterday we saw the senseless murder of two on-duty NYPD officers. I know that Advent is a time of joyous hope and expectation, but it is hard to keep your mind on the approach of Christmas when there is so much human suffering in the world.

So last week felt like a good time to go to a monastery. Kathy and I usually make our way to West Park on the Hudson by way of Manhattan, and we spent part of Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at MOMA. After a car trip preoccupied with suffering, hatred, and death, it is a healing experience to enter two museum spaces devoted to grace and beauty. At the Met, I wandered into a gallery where the artworks are in cases and you have to press a button to light them up. Intrigued like a kid at a science exhibit, I pressed one such button and came upon Botticelli’s Annunciation.

Botticelli painted his Annunciation around 1485 in Florence. It’s more a private, devotional image than something to hang on your wall: painted in tempera and gold on wood, it depicts the interchange between Gabriel and Mary we heard read just now in our Gospel for today. In Botticelli’s painting, a wall separates the archangel Gabriel from Mary. He is in a waiting room, she in a bed chamber. Both are in poses suggesting anticipation, contemplation, and humility. He is kneeling in preparation to speak, and she is kneeling in preparation to hear. Like many annunciation painting, Botticelli’s shows us the moment right before the news is told. He is just about to tell her that she will conceive and bear a son. The impossible is about to become possible.

As you can imagine, I spent my time at Holy Cross Monastery thinking a lot about Botticelli’s Annunciation. In fact, I downloaded the image onto my iPad and spent a fair amount of time last week just looking at it. Aside from the obvious beauty of the piece, I continue to be struck by the way it represents three truths that I think are important for all of us to remember on the Sunday before Christmas. One is the sense of anticipation the painting represents—a sense each of us needs to recover. Another is the deep interiority we see in the faces of Gabriel and Mary. A third is the radical importance of Mary for us who strive to follow her son. A word about each.

Anticipation. In this painting, Gabriel and Mary are perched on the verge of something that will come to them. They wait. The only work they do in Botticelli’s Annunciation involves preparing to speak and to listen. In that sense, they show us what Advent is really about. In our place and time, we seem always to value action over contemplation. In Botticelli’s painting, Gabriel and Mary are still. They are quiet. They are waiting to take in big news from outside themselves and consider what it might mean for them and for us.

Now I’m probably not the best person to deliver this advice. Kathy Hall regularly reminds me that I have the patience of a gnat. But we preachers are not known for our consistency, so I’ll say it anyway. Advent is a time when we are asked to move out of action and into contemplation. Of course it is important that we take action. But it’s equally important that when we act we don’t do something stupid. The coming of Jesus will happen in God’s time, not ours. We are not in control of the universe. Mary has many things to teach us, but perhaps the first of them is just this: we need to learn how to wait.

Interiority. Botticelli’s Annunciation makes visually clear what our scripture implies about Mary: she has a deep interior life. When Gabriel tells her the news about the birth of her son, her first response is a question: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). In the next chapter, near the end of the Christmas story itself, Luke will tell us, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary is a premodern person. Her interior life is not on display. It is hidden in her heart.

You and I live in a time of self-projection. But we humans have not always been this way. There was a time before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, a time before relentless self-promotion. You and I can’t stop talking (and when we’re talking online, we’re usually talking about ourselves). In her quietness, Mary demonstrates personal, interior character rather than outward, performative display. Does everybody need to know what we think about everything all the time? As Christmas approaches, we might consider what a gift such an internal conversion to silence on our part might be not only to ourselves but to the world.

And then there is the radical fact of Mary herself. The church has said all kinds of things about Mary over the years, but to me she will always above all be the exemplary Christian person. When he finally gets around to it, Gabriel tells her big and astounding news. She will bear a son, Jesus, and he will sit on the throne of his ancestor David. Jesus will be the “Son of the Most High God.” When you take this story out of the stained glass we have wrapped around it, you see that Mary is being asked to do something enormous. And how does she respond? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Mary accepts God’s call to bear Jesus, and she does so not as a passive vessel of grace but as an active participant in God’s redeeming purpose. She says yes to a high, hard task. She will not only be Jesus’ mother: she will go on to become both a prophet in her own right and her son’s most faithful companion.

I spent three days last week in a monastery, taking time to reflect on Luke’s Gospel as portrayed in Botticelli’s Annunciation. Monasteries end their round of prayer services each night with Compline, a rite that closes with a Gregorian chant called the “Antiphon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Having prayed and listened together all day, the monks and their guests join once more to sing this simple text, addressed to Jesus’ mother on our behalf:

Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, forever abiding
Queen of heaven and star of ocean, O pray for your children,
who, though falling, strive to rise again.
You, maiden, have borne your holy Creator to the wonder of all nature;
ever virgin, after as before you received that Ave
from the mouth of Gabriel; intercede for us sinners.
(OHC Monastic Breviary, p. 431)

As you sing this antiphon at the end of a day, you cannot help thinking both about what has already passed and what is yet to come. Together, we await the birth of one who will scatter the proud in their conceit and fill the hungry with good things. Together, we try to make sense of the violence in Sydney, Peshawar, and Newtown; in Staten Island, Cleveland, Ferguson, and Brooklyn. Gabriel kneels in preparation. He is poised to announce the birth of one whose life and death and resurrection will give us a way to turn all this violence into redeeming love.

But not yet. This is still Advent, not yet Christmas. We wait, with Gabriel and with Mary, in expectation of divine love being born among us again. We hold in our minds and in our hearts the suffering of children, the inhumanity of violence, the pains and struggles of everyday people just to get by. How we can live in a world that has both Botticelli’s Annunciation and school shootings is beyond me. And because it is beyond me, I reach with Gabriel and Mary and all who love her for the child that we have heard will be born.

Gracious Mother of our Redeemer, forever abiding
Queen of heaven and star of ocean, O pray for your children,
who, though falling, strive to rise again.
…intercede for us sinners.

Yes, Mary. Pray for your children and intercede for us sinners. Pray for us all.


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