It’s May. And traditionally the month of May is devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today I would like to lead you in a reflection on Mary using a contemporary painting of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. The painting might surprise or even shock you. Here it is:
Take a few moments to look at the painting…This painting is the work of the American artist John Carrol Collier. Painted in 2000, it hangs in St. Gabriel Catholic Church in McKinney, Texas. The painting depicts Mary as a young school girl about 13 or 14 years old. Scripture scholars tell us, that’s probably how old she was when the Annunciation occurred. Girls in first century Palestine were betrothed shortly after reaching puberty. Mary is wearing ordinary clothes, a blue jumper and white blouse (maybe it’s her school uniform) and saddle shoes. She is reading a book. It could be her homework.
Mary has just answered the doorbell and finds an angel, Gabriel, standing on her front porch. He bows reverently to her. We can almost hear him say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace” (Lk. 1:28). Mary looks shocked and even afraid. St. Luke’s words come to mind: “But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be “(Lk. 1:29).
The artist has included other symbols found in many traditional Annunciation scenes. There are lilies on the porch, for example, a symbol of Mary’s purity. If you look closely at the house in the background, you will see a pigeon on the roof–a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In many older paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is reading a book. Often it is the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “The virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is. 7:14). Realistically, of course, there were no books in Mary’s time. And being a woman, she probably did not know how to read. But Mary would have been familiar with the Old Testament and would have probably known many verses by heart.
I like this painting for it shows Mary as a real person who lived in a real time and place. In other words, she is one of us. She was only a young girl when God asked her to bear his Son. She was no Superwoman. She was simple, fragile, and vulnerable–like us. Notice that Mary is standing on the welcome mat. The artist says that this represents Mary’s stance in life, her openness to life in general and to God in particular. At the Annunciation Mary welcomed God into her life and into her body with the words, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). We might ask ourselves: Is there a welcome mat at the door of my heart? Or does the mat say, “Go away!”
I noticed that Mary’s saddle shoes are untied–as if she had just slipped them on to answer the door. Or maybe she was just going to slip them off. Whatever, the angel seems to have interrupted her. And the truth is God did interrupt Mary’s life. God did interrupt her plans on a very deep level. Has God ever interrupted my life or my plans? Perhaps the untied shoes could also symbolize the “loose ends” in Mary’s life: what would she tell her parents? What about Joseph? How does one go about raising the Son of God? Once again I find myself relating to Mary, for my life too is far from having everything “tied up” neatly in a bow. How graciously can I live with loose ends?
Here is the painting again:
Ponder it again if you wish. Then speak to Mary with your own words or with these:
Mary, you lived in a real time and a real place. You worked hard, you enjoyed your family and friends, you talked every day to God, you made plans for the future, you pondered scripture and the many mysteries of daily life. Mary, you were simple, fragile, and vulnerable–like me. Yet you were open to life. You welcomed life even when it interrupted your plans, even when it confused or frightened you. And in doing so, you welcomed God the Holy One into your life. Mary, you are one of us. Help us to become more like you. Amen.
What do you think of this painting–and of Mary?