In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The beautiful anonymity and soft innocence of a young girl in Nazareth would be stripped by an angelic visitation. Who could ever envision the global veneration soon to commence? This Holy Virgin of Martini’s masterpiece cannot be Mary’s vision. The gilded, enthroned Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Theotokos, Panagia. Millenia of adoration blurs the humanity of such a terrifying moment in the life of a child.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Gabriel’s praise for her resounds the Earth this Advent Season. Martini paints the words spouting from Gabriel’s mouth, invading Mary’s space. Her shoulder shrug speaks to Luke’s revelations of her humanity. The Gospel record exposes her vulnerability and reluctance to embrace such a startling event.
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
“Highly favored” does not resound in Mary’s spirit. This unwelcome heavenly visitor penetrated her space and would soon reveal more shocking news. God Himself would be taking something from her — never to be restored.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Gabriel perceives her fright and consoles the delicate flower. Soon to be deflowered, the son in her womb would be seen as Divine. Favored? Could it be? Mother to a King? That surely cannot repay. Though an eternal honor, we see again the text reveals her humanity. This Holy Mother of a frightening realization whose virginity would be taken by no natural means. As the story goes, but her concerns are far more biological and sexual.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The label of scorn and humiliation today was a badge of honor and purity then.
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
Even more improbable then than it seems now. This Virgin Mother fragile youth. What would Joseph say? What about mother and father, Anne and Joachim? Their scorn and shame at such an evident lie? For who can believe such madness? However, Mother Mary’s miracle is what follows. How can she resign herself to such an unbelievable tale?
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Whether Martini’s version, Luke’s version or ours — this divinely human moment suggests something more terrifyingly unbelievable awaits. Who is this son of a virgin? What kind of God/man or man/God could spring forth? Advent speaks to these paradoxes of faith in doubt. From that moment of annunciation to our Season of Advent, Mary’s fearful expectation might become ours.
What kind of God does this, taking what is most precious from an innocent, young child? Thrusting her into maternity — of no normal means to rear a King? This God who risks the safety of a child?
Mary’s questions and resignation inspire hope and fear of such a puzzling One.
So we nervously wait.