"Of course it's true. And some of it might have even happened"
-Joseph Campbell, about mythology
The Virgin Mary is a figure that has caused alot of problems. For the Protestant Reformation, she was a symbol of how Christianity had gotten off track. For modern scientific intellectuals, the entire story of the Virgin Birth is a preposterous fable that underscores the ridiculous nature of religion. For many women who grew up Catholic, she is an impossible ideal of perfection that has led to feelings of deep unworthiness and shame. As a historical figure, we know virtually next to nothing about the young woman who became the mother of Jesus. While myths and legends proliferated throughout the centuries, truly there is very little, if anything, that we can assert with confidence about this Jewish girl. There is actually more written about her in the Koran than in the Bible, while a second century text refers to her as a hairdresser with an illegitimate child. From an archetypal perspective, however, there is great consistency of what Mary represents: the contemplation and deep inner listening that are at the heart of the quiet time of Advent, One of the cornerstones of the church's liturgical readings for this season is the story of the angel Gabriel arriving to bring Mary the unexpected news of her pregnancy- the basis for one of the most beautiful carols (click on the link below to hear the King's College Choir rendition of this glorious song).
The miraculous and wholly unexpected shows up in all of our lives sooner or later. I love how Denise Levertov underscores the universal theme of the Annunciation: with her stirring poem below. The question she implies is: do we have the courage to open ourselves to the extraordinary? Can we risk taking on an unprecedented task? Do we dare to follow an unfamiliar path? Can we find the courage,to trust the voice of the holy and step into a larger purpose for our lives than the one we had previously imagined? When the divine shows up, can we let go of the life we had scripted for ourselves so that we can enter into a bigger and more mysterious story?
I love how Dante Gabriel Rossetti caught this moment of choice in his painting (above), as his Mary rises startled from sleep, poised between fear and wonder, innocence and courage. One tender note to this scene: Rossetti's brother William was the model for the angel Gabriel, and his sixteen year old sister Christina sat for the portrait of Mary.
A question to contemplate might be: how does the divine show up in my life? And am I awake enough to notice?
The Annunciation by Denise Levertov
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.