Do not be afraid (Luke 1:26-38)

“Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Through the centuries, the Annunciation has inspired many artists who have sought to capture in their paintings this most sacred and pivotal moment in the history of the world. My favorite is The Annunciation, painted in 1898 by the American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. The artist seems to capture the intensity and fire of the angel Gabriel’s appearance to the young Mary. I can’t decide if Tanner is depicting Mary’s first startled awareness at what God was asking of her or her sinking under the weight of what this message would mean for her life. Her hands folded, she is already pondering, storing away in her heart what God was doing.

So many masterpieces of the Annunciation portray the young virgin Mary in a religious setting where all seems peaceful and simple. But Tanner, I believe, captures the words of the angel, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

We cannot imagine that this girl barely a teenager would not have been concerned or apprehensive about the role that she was to carry out in salvation history. There were many unknowns that the angel didn’t clear up for her. Gabriel didn’t point out a way forward or explain to her how Joseph was going to find out about the child. What would her parents think? Her friends? Would she be able to share this with anyone? Would anyone be able to walk this way with her and show her the next steps she should take? The Messiah. The Son of the Most High. The one who would sit upon the throne of David and rule over the house of Jacob forever. The one whose kingdom would have no end.

It is hard to think that this young girl walked with ease and security into the rest of that Annunciation day with total confidence about what was happening to her. Throughout every day of her life, I can imagine her recalling the words as she heard them from the angel, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

When she and Joseph realized Jesus was lost, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

When Jesus left home to begin his public life, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

When she saw the growing discontent and disapproval directed at Jesus by the religious leaders, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

When she stood beneath the cross, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

This beautiful account of what happened at the Annunciation, probably told to Luke by Mary herself, concludes with her yes, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the passage transitions back into ordinary life with the almost ominous sentence, “Then the angel departed from her.” She was left alone.

We are told of no angel leading her back into Jerusalem to find her son. We read of no angels providing for her needs after Joseph had died and Jesus had left home to pursue his public ministry. The Gospel does not assure us that Mary had special revelations from further angels that everything was going to be okay as the religious leaders sought to put her son to death. We see no angels supporting her beneath the cross. Only John who stood in for you and me as Jesus gave his mother to be our mother. No. The angel departed from her.

There must have been not a few moments of wondering, worry, anxiety, sorrow alongside the strong faith, the determined surrender, and the rejoicing with which she continued to magnify the Lord. Somehow Mary was able to hold in her heart, to ponder and pray and believe and hope even as she wondered and worried in the uncertainty of all that was happening. As I look at Tanner’s Annunciation, this is the message I tuck away in my own heart. When I worry and wonder and doubt and fear I usually forget to ponder and pray and believe and hope. Mary was able to hold together the whole picture: the whole picture of what was happening in her own life, in the life of her Son, of her people, of history, of God’s work of salvation. She didn’t have a selective memory. She remembered everything and trusted everything and entrusted herself entirely into the unknown of the radical newness of what God was accomplishing in her for the sake of the world. I struggle to do this, and perhaps so do you. In whatever strained circumstances or difficult situations that cause you anxiety and doubt today, remember the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid.”

Praying with this passage of Scripture

Lectio Divina is a way of listening to God as he speaks in his Word. It is a practice of communicating with God through Scripture and attending to God’s presence and what he wishes to tell us. In this slow and prayerful reading of the Word of God, we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit who forms us into the image of Christ.
There are four movement in Lectio Divina: Read (lectio), Meditate (meditation), Pray (oratio), Contemplate (contemplation).

Begin by finding a still space to pray. Breathe deeply and become quieter within. Abandon any agenda, worries or thoughts you bring to this prayer and entrust these things to the merciful care of God. Ask for the grace to be receptive to what God will speak to you through this Scripture reading. Grant me, Jesus Divine Master, to be able to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God and your unfathomable riches. Grant that your word penetrate my soul; guide my steps, and brighten my way till the day dawns and darkness dissipates, you who live and reign forever and ever Amen.

Read (lectio)
Begin by slowly and meditatively reading your Scripture passage out loud. Listen for a particular word or phrase that speaks to you at this moment and sit with it for a time.

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 angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 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.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

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.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Meditate (meditatio) – Read the same passage a second time. As you re-engage the text, let the word or phrase that stood out become your invitation to speak from your heart with God who wishes to share his heart with you. Allow this word or phrase to wash over you and permeate your thoughts and feelings. You may wish to repeat this phrase quietly and gently for a period of time.

Pray (oratio) – Read the text a third time. Listen for what God is saying to you. Speak heart to heart with God. Notice the feelings that this conversation with God raises up within you. Share with God what you notice about your response to this conversation. You may wish to return to repeating the phrase quietly and gently, allowing it to permeate you more and more deeply.

Contemplate (contemplatio)
Read the text a final time. Now be still and rest in God’s embrace. Ask God to give you a gift to take with you from this prayer. You might ask God if he is inviting you to do some action, for instance, make some change in your thoughts, attitudes or reactions, in the way you speak or how you treat others. Thank God for this gift and invitation as you conclude your prayer.

Credit information: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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