Annunciation and Declaration

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the encounter between the Archangel Gabriel and the young maiden Mary, when Gabriel announced that Mary would conceive the child Jesus.

Whether the Annunciation be a miracle or a myth, it’s a powerful story that is well worth our consideration. It’s a story about call, about vocation, about how our individual destinies  or life purposes are knit together in a larger, grander, cosmic story. I’m reminded of the song “Terrapin Station” by Grateful Dead: “The storyteller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice; his job is to shed light, and not to master.” Certainly this was the kind of energy that Gabriel brought to the peasant girl: the archangel did not imperiously decree that she would submit to this fate chosen for her — “you’re going to do this and you’re going to like it” — so much as simply stating the situation (“you’re going to have a baby”) and imbuing it with mystical light (“God has found favor with you… nothing is impossible with God”). It was Mary’s fiat — her affirming response: “let it be with me according to your word” — that functions as the dramatic capstone of the Annunciation. God may have issued the call, but it was Mary’s call (pardon the pun) as to whether or not she would receive her vocation with joy, with serenity, with faith.

We can get lost in gender politics here, and this story certainly can be interpreted as an unfortunate chapter in the history of the silencing of women. But I think such a reading downplays Mary’s dignity. Mary didn’t have a choice in whether or not she would conceive, true enough. But she did get to choose how she would deal with it. Frankly, by the dictates of common sense, Mary should have been freaking out on an epic scale: as an unmarried pregnant woman, she would have been a likely target for social ostracization or even murder (what they matter-of-factly called “stoning” in her day, now perversely described as “honor killings”). Mary’s fiat was a dramatic twist, an ironic moment that flew in the face of convention and social propriety. God may have surprised her with a miraculous pregnancy, but she surprised God back by choosing to go with the flow, mindfully and consciously.

So I wonder if this Feast Day shouldn’t be renamed the Feast of the Fiat, or perhaps the Feast of Mary’s Declaration. I remember a preacher once saying that what was remarkable about Jesus was not the resurrection — any self-respecting deity should be able to raise himself from the dead — but the crucifixion, to which Jesus offered his own fiat. Every one of us has the opportunity to declare our willingness to embrace our purpose, our destiny, our call — or even just the unfair challenges that tumble down into our lives. Thankfully, such a call will not always entail embracing a miraculous unplanned pregnancy or facing a cruel, painful death. But that’s not to say the call will always be fun or easy. After almost 18 years, I’m still trying to figure out how to say fiat to my calling to be the stepfather of a seriously handicapped young woman, without indulging in anger or bitterness or other shadow emotions that lurk in the more stressful moments of our shared family life. When the angel comes to you or to me to make the annunciation, who knows what we will be told? Feed the poor. Consume less energy. Befriend the person who votes differently, or whose sexual ethics are unlike your own. Stop judging your parents (or your children). Get help for your drinking problem. Join an intentional community. Devote an hour a day to silent prayer. Accept the fact that you will never walk again, or that you will be dead in six months. And on and on the list can go.

Once the annunciation is made, then comes the silence. Soon you will no longer hear the storyteller’s (angel’s) voice. In that open, luminous space, we make our declaration to life, to God, to the cosmos. We can say fiat or we can begin to whine and argue or make excuses. If you’re like me, chances are you’ll do some of both: you’ll say “yes, but” which is , I suppose, part of being human in a less-than-perfect world. That’s okay. But I don’t want to let us off the hook, either. For our declaration, whether irenic or combative, will not only shape our own experience of our destiny, but will also color how we live out our lives in relation to others. Cue the serenity prayer: saying yes to the things we cannot change, and being wise and heartful about those things we can, will make all the difference. There’s plenty of room to chart our own course even in a world where big things happen that we cannot control, big things that will shape our lives in horrible (or glorious) ways.

Cleaning the cobwebs out of our own minds (through the discipline of contemplation) is always a good place to start.

Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • jean wise

    Good thoughts, Carl. What fascinates me is Mary’s decision to say Yes quickly. I have observed that it takes me awhile ( too long?) to adapt to the new call, change and set my will aside to follow. The ego is a mighty obstacle and difficult to set aside. I hope I get ‘there’ eventually but seems to be my heart falters and my action moves in slow motion.

  • Andy Coan

    I’ve been following your blog with interest for a few weeks now, but I suppose I finally see I’m just in the wrong place when you feel the need to spoil an otherwise insightful and moving reflection on Mary’s Fiat with “Whether the annunciation be a miracle or a myth…”

  • brazenbird

    This post made me teary. Beautifully written and moving. Thank you Carl.

  • brazenbird

    Andy, for those of us who struggle with what we’ve been taught to believe, Carl gives allowance for us in his inclusive language.

    If you believe Mary’s Fiat was miracle, then there is room for you.

    If I believe that it is a great and beautiful myth, there is also room for me here.

    And in the sharing we are both informed and informing. This post was an insightful and moving reflection on Mary’s Fiat. Regardless of how literally a person takes it.

  • John Marquez

    “Mary didn’t have a choice in whether or not she would conceive, true enough. But she did get to choose how she would deal with it.”

    How Mary chose — and how we choose — to accept reality is so important, I agree. But more, I’ve always imagined that Mary did in fact have a choice whether or not she would conceive. Granted the angel says, “You will conceive…” but I’ve figured that this statement of God’s will is a literary convention on Luke’s part. I like to think that God’s respect of human free will goes to such depths that even this most crucial moment is dependent upon human willingness. But I could be reading into the text.

    And if I could depart from the text even more, and if it’s not out of line, I’d like to link to a photo of my favorite artistic representation of the Annunciation, a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner:
    One of the things I love in this painting is Mary’s physical posture — seated at the edge of her bed, the tilted head, the hands folded on her lap — all of which suggests to me that Mary has had time to compose herself after the initial surprise, to relax into the conversation. We come in after it’s been going on for a while. What is she hearing? What questions is she asking?


  • Carl McColman

    John, you’re right, the Tanner Annunciation is beautiful. In fact, a monk preached on it this morning at the Monastery where I work. I’ve inserted the image in my blog post so that others can see how lovely it is.

  • John Marquez

    Wow! Synchronicity or what?!

  • dFish

    Thank you Carl, for this penetrating insights and honest self-looking on Mary’s fiat.I’ll linger around in silence over this piece this Friday…

  • Bob

    A good meditation, Carl, Great pro-life message. This feast day gets overshadowed by Palm Sunday and Easter

  • babushkajoanna

    Carl, the Tanner Annunciation is at my blog, too…we think alike. :)