Annunciation: The “Yes”
By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege
In the parish I serve in Lexington, Kentucky, there is a stained glass window depicting the Annunciation located in the clerestory that rises above the nave (the part of the church where the people of God gather for worship.) On Wednesday afternoons, when the congregation of the faithful is often few in number, my seat is located directly below and across from this magnificent piece of art.
If at all possible, I try to arrive in my seat ten minutes or so prior to the start of the service—a time set aside for reflection and prayer that all too often, can go forgotten in the course of a normal week. During these moments, week after week, I continually find myself gazing at the image of the Annunciation.
The depiction is traditional in almost every way. The eventual Mother of God is devoutly kneeling, as though her noonday prayers are being interrupted by the angel who appears before her eyes. There is no resistance or hesitation; there is only adoration of the divine messenger—the one who will utter a word rendering her life, and the life of all creation, forever changed.
Bells toll from the tower and the Eucharistic liturgy must be underway. All too soon, my moment with the Blessed Virgin and the angelic visitor is over. But Mary remains, fixed in her position of consent and obedience, awaiting the next person who will pause to gaze upon her life-altering moment of divine visitation.
Annually, the Church returns to the Annunciation, nine long months prior to the mid-winter festival of the Incarnation. With each return, preachers and pew-sitters alike are faced with the question of what, if anything, this story has to offer our lives and journeys of faith.
After all, when an individual speaks of an angelic visitation, the twenty-first century impulse is more likely to make a psychiatric referral rather than record it as Gospel truth. Yet, this story and its yearly festival remain on our calendar, with some leaving it forgotten in the confines of Lent while others mark it with great ceremony and devotion.
The angelic announcement to the eventual Mother of God is a biblical narrative in which, I believe, it is very possible to locate ourselves as twenty-first century readers and preachers and find meaning for the Christian journey in our present day. Mary’s is an unlikely tale of surprise and faithfulness that can reach beyond so many boundaries and enliven the absurdity of our common call as Christ-followers in this age.
When the angel of the Lord visits Mary, she pauses, resists even. Luke tells us that she is “perplexed by his words.” And who could blame her? The unwelcome guest has entered into her midst and is preparing to offer the most unlikely of invitations: a summons to join in God’s story of salvation for all time.
In our own time, the unwelcome guest with a life-changing message can appear in so many different forms, but rarely as an angel. One might hear the message of the angel in this passage but not be able to shake the words of the physician who has just named the spot on the X-ray as cancer. Another might envision the angel’s appearance before the youthful Mary but see only the image of a former employer announcing the terms of a layoff and a promising career taking an unexpected turn.
As Luke’s rendering of the event progresses, it is as though the teen girl is maturing into an astute woman before our eyes. Blessed Mary receives the improbable dispatch of the angel and responds with an even more astounding affirmation. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”
It begs the question: What divine call might we, as individuals and communities of readers, be wrestling with as this passage is proclaimed? As I write, faithful people in our nation are perplexed at how to respond to a ban on the entry of refugees into this nation. Others are pondering sustainable solutions to staggering reality of hunger in our various communities. No doubt, other issues exist and will continue to arise.
As a preacher, I often think of my task as opening up the story and then stepping out of the way—a task easier said than done. In this passage, it is to invite a congregation to see this story for all that it is: an unlikely young woman receiving a visit from the divine messenger and offering a less than warm welcome. But, even more, it is to invite the hearer to respond to the call of the Holy One with a like fervor, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The location of the Annunciation window in my parish is significant, far beyond the fact that the presider is offered the opportunity to gaze upon her week after week. In the clerestory where the window stands are images that are associated with each of the apostles. They work their way around the sacred hall of prayer in order, from the front to the back, left to right.
Following this path, the same pilgrimage that marks the life of Jesus on the lower level, Mary’s Annunciation experience is first among those. She is the first apostle, the first to encounter the incomparable plan of God and to respond in affirmation.
Mary’s response to the divine summons, “let it be with me according to your word,” is the ‘yes’ that sets in motion the incarnation of the perfect reconciling love of God. Her ‘yes’ makes possible our ‘yes,’ our participation in the cosmic movement of redemption that is being worked out, day by day.
The Annunciation bids us all to find ourselves, individually and collectively, in the story of a young woman engaged to a man named Joseph, a girl who heard the unexpected invitation of God and said yes. Her story has the power to inspire each of us, in our own journeys, to follow in the path that she herself has traveled, a trail of faithfulness that leads us ultimately into the redeeming heart of God.
The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.