10 December 2011

Giving birth to perplexing challenges in Advent

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow week, Sunday 18 December 2011, is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: II Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; the Canticle Magnificat or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; and Luke 1: 26-38.

This morning in our Bible study we are looking at the Gospel reading for that Sunday:

Luke 1: 26-38

26 Ἐν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἧ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ 27 πρὸς παρθένον ἐμνηστευμένην ἀνδρὶ ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσὴφ ἐξ οἴκου Δαυίδ, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ. 28 καὶ εἰσελθὼν πρὸς αὐτὴν εἶπεν, Χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη, ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. 29 ἡ δὲ ἐπὶ τῷ λόγῳ διεταράχθη καὶ διελογίζετο ποταπὸς εἴη ὁ ἀσπασμὸς οὗτος. 30 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ ἄγγελος αὐτῇ, Μὴ φοβοῦ, Μαριάμ, εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ: 31 καὶ ἰδοὺ συλλήμψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. 32 οὗτος ἔσται μέγας καὶ υἱὸς ὑψίστου κληθήσεται, καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ κύριος ὁ θεὸς τὸν θρόνον Δαυὶδ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ, 33 καὶ βασιλεύσει ἐπὶ τὸν οἶκον Ἰακὼβ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος. 34 εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον, Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο, ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω; 35 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σέ, καὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι: διὸ καὶ τὸ γεννώμενον ἅγιον κληθήσεται, υἱὸς θεοῦ. 36 καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἐλισάβετ ἡ συγγενίς σου καὶ αὐτὴ συνείληφεν υἱὸν ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς, καὶ οὗτος μὴν ἕκτος ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τῇ καλουμένῃ στείρᾳ: 37 ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. 38 εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ, Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου: γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἀπ' αὐτῆς ὁ ἄγγελος.

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34 Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35 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 will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38 Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.


This Gospel reading is the same we had almost nine months ago on 25 March for the Feast of the Annunciation, one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church. We have the same Gospel reading again, almost nine months later, because the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation is so significant as we prepare to celebrate that Incarnation.

However, there is a cultural antipathy within most parts of the Church of Ireland (though not throughout the Anglican Communion) that makes it difficult to deal with Gospel stories about the Virgin Mary.

Thursday last, 8 December, was an ordinary day in the Church of Ireland calendar and lectionary. Few, except those who have a residual memory of provincial shoppers arriving in Dublin on that date to start their Christmas shopping in earnest, would have realised what this date means for our neighbours. Nor do we mark 15 August, although we do mark the date on which other saints are said to have died, including Charles Inglis on 16 August. Most of our parishes are unlikely to even notice that 8 September is marked in the calendar and lectionary.

Many of us find it difficult too to take on board the plaster statue image of Mary, in demure robes of white and blue, which run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated in the canticle Magnificat, which is offered as a first choice in the readings instead of the Psalm for this Sunday, and for tomorrow too; the strong Mary who stands by the Cross when most of the disciples have run away; and the strong Mary of the Pieta.

A Pre-Raphaelite painting

We are all used to these images of Mary that lack challenge and message, images that have been inherited through Mediaeval and Renaissance art. But one of the most challenging presentation in art of the Annunciation is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London.

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of Victorian artists who wanted to emulate the richness and purity of the mediaeval period. The son of an exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter.

This painting is one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and when it was first exhibited in 1850 it shocked and stirred controversy.

In this painting, Rossetti offers a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation, rejecting the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary passively receiving the news. Instead, he seeks to give the picture a supernatural realism.

While the angel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child, she appears to be recoiling, as if disturbed from sleep.

Although Rossetti relies on earlier traditions for many of the symbols he uses in this scene, his use of these symbols, his depiction of space, and most significantly his portrayal of the two figures represent significant departures from earlier tradition.

This painting is unusual in that the artist shows Mary in a state of fear – see how she cowers against the wall and casts her eyes down. This is a far cry from many depictions of the Annunciation where Mary is shown in a state of humble acceptance.

White is the dominant colour in the painting, relieved only by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity, and is reinforced by the lily embroidery – the same that one the Virgin Mary is shown making in Rossetti’s painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, also on display in the Tate.

Early great paintings of this scene usually depict lilies, the symbol of the Mary’s purity, in a vase nearby the scene as the angel addresses the Virgin. Although Rossetti also uses lilies, he integrates them into both the action and the environment of the scene.

Notice how Gabriel holds out a stem with lilies, offering them to Mary and seemingly presenting her with an embodiment of the chastity and purity she is fated to continue throughout her life. At the end of the bed hangs an embroidery on which Mary is also working on in his painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This plays a contextual role – this is a young girl’s bedroom, so we might expect to find her needlework in this space – as well as perhaps representing her active choice to live purely since she has chosen to embroider a lily.

Mary is not dressed in her traditional blue; instead she wears a simple white dress. Yet, Rossetti does not ignore the importance of blue as the colour associated with the Virgin Mary and heaven: he places a blue screen directly behind her, and looking through the window, the sky is a similar shade of blue, alluding to heaven.

Most Annunciation scenes have candles that have just blown out as a result of the entrance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Rossetti paints a wall sconce with a hint of a flame – a different presentation of a usual symbol. He includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, although in this case he has not drastically transformed a traditional symbol.

Rossetti’s imagined space shows great innovation. Compared to the traditional interiors, rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and similar details, the Virgin’s bedroom in Rossetti’s painting is shockingly simple. White stone tiles cover the floor; the walls have white paint; the window has no panes; and the only object in the room that I have not mentioned already is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow.

In traditional paintings, the room draws the viewer in and the eye is allowed to move through the scene to the back wall of the bedroom. But Rossetti places Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobically small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: Mary’s bed appears about to slide out of the painting and the floor on the left of the painting blends into the wall, furthering the effect of a steep plane.

For the view out the window at the back, Rossetti might have given the scene depth by allowing us to see a scene in the distance. Instead, he shows only blue sky and part of a tree.

Look too at the angel. Rather than a winged, long-haired boyish angel, Rossetti paints an androgynous Gabriel, without wings, his face only visible in highly shadowed profile, with the hints of yellow flames around his feet.

Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall. She is markedly adolescent with her beautiful young features, unbrushed straight hair, childishly skinny body, and the hesitance, fear and melancholy with which she responds to the Angel Gabriel’s news. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, reminiscent of a bloodshot eye or perhaps intentionally of Christ’s crown of thorns.

Rossetti has no use for the stiff, exaggerated poses of primitive Virgins. He seems most concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been given a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility. And in this task, Rossetti thoroughly succeeds.

Mary is keenly aware of her position, and it is this self-awareness and terror that endows the painting with its power. This painting inspires the viewer to religious contemplation and prayer. But it also speaks strongly to universal issues of growth, responsibility and youthful vulnerability.

Favoured and perplexed

When Mary hears the Angel Gabriel address her as the “favoured one” and tell her, “The Lord is with you,” she is “much perplexed by his words” and she ponders “what sort of greeting this might be.”


I should think she was perplexed, to say the least.

She has been told she is to bear a child, who would be called a son of God, and who would receive the throne of David.

“How can this be?” she asks.

And well she might ask.

She might well wonder how she is going to survive a full nine months until this baby is born, once her father, her family, her friends and her village heard she is pregnant.

Both the BBC and the Guardian have reported earlier this month how there is a frightening increase in “honour killings in Britain. The topic is providing one of the current plot lines in EastEnders.

So-called “honour killings” were frequent too around the time of the first Christmas. A woman who was sexually violated by a man – even against her will – could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the illegitimately conceived child would bring no further shame to the family.

The newly-betrothed Joseph would know he is not the father of Mary’s baby. If a man and a woman who were betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married. This, and not some religious ceremony, marks what we might call the “consummation” of the union, and the engagement now becomes a marriage.

Should Joseph intend to stay with Mary, he has to protect her and protect himself no be acknowledging the child is his.

On the other hand, if he does not do this, Mary’s pregnancy becomes known and her father or brothers do not kill her, then the Biblical code commanded the death penalty both for her and for the man – if he is known too – who has stolen Joseph’s betrothed and made her pregnant.

And of course if child’s true identity is truly known, there are others who would like to ensure that Mary does complete her full term of pregnancy.

Herod the Great, who rules as king with Rome’s support, would not be very happy with another claimant to David’s throne arriving on the scene.

If the authorities realise this child is going to be honoured as the “Son of God,” they too would have to take action. This is a title used for the Roman Emperors; any usurper or pretender is likely to end up on a cross rather than on a throne.

Anticipation and challenge

In the choice of the Canticle Magnificat to accompany the readings, both responses are anticipated and challenged in Mary’s song, praises God and proclaims:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
– Luke 1: 52-53.

In our world today, despite financial and economic problems and banking and trading scandals, are the proud and the powerful still on their thrones?

Are the lowly still waiting to be lifted up?

Are the hungry waiting to be filled with good things?

Do the rich still find themselves still walking away with all they want?

What are the promises of this Advent, of every Advent, of the coming Kingdom?

What are the promises and prospects for a child that is born among us this Christmas?

We live in a world where the survival chances of a child depend not just on attitudes to “honour killings,” but even more so they depend on the financial and economic climates where mothers live.

The American blogger and theologian Sarah Dylan Breuer cites Mike Russell when she points out that this is a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty; where 300 children die during an average Sunday sermon in an Anglican Church; and where 1,600 children die during each celebration of the Eucharist.

Yet, the Advent readings tell us repeatedly that God’s promise is that through Christ the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary: “How can this be?”

We too may ponder these things in our hearts. But having pondered them, what do we do about them?

We too are re called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of dignity for those regarded as lowly.

We are called to do that not just in words or song, but like Mary, by giving flesh to God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s justice, and God’s love for the world.

The young, unmarried teenage Mary found the courage to face her father, her family, her potential husband, her friends, her village, despite the risk of pointing and whispering … and stoning. There would be a birth … and there would be another death. And I recall the words of TS Eliot:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

– TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi (1927)


God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study with students in a tutorial group on the distance learning and part-time MTh course on Saturday 10 December 2011.

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