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  • Steve Auth

Happy Feast of the Annunciation!

Antonello de Messina, Virgin Annunciate, 1476. Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily, special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, 2005

Please meditate a moment on this masterpiece, Antonello de Messina’s “Virgin Annunciate.” Many consider it the “Catholic Mona Lisa”. If you’ve never seen it or heard of it, no surprise; it hangs in a small museum in Palermo, Italy, and has only traveled outside that spot twice in the last 500 years. It came briefly to the Met 15 years ago, where I saw it for the first time, and is featured in our upcoming book, “Pilgrimage to the Met: A Missionary’s Search for God through Art and Time.”

There is so much going on in this simple painting of a single simple girl that every time I’ve studied it since I see more.

In the black space of the background with only an open Torah before her, I see a young woman at prayer, preparing her heart. Had Mary not been prepared, if her heart was not already open through study and meditation on God’s Word, would she have recognized the voice of the angel? Is my heart prepared enough to see an angel from God if he entered my room?

Speaking of the angel, where is he? I know he’s there—the sudden wind of his entrance on the scene is blowing the pages of the book. But I can’t see him. In this almost revolutionary gesture (no Annunciation scene that I know of had ever been produced without the image of the angel being present), Messina has created for us the ambiguity of this whole situation as Mary experienced it. “Is the angel really there, or am I imagining him?”

Then, I see Mary clasping her blouse together with her left hand, protecting her modesty. After all, she is a young, beautiful Jewish virgin, and has probably never been alone in her room with a stranger, much less someone with wings. Her first human instinct is to protect her purity. Would that have been mine?

The angel begins to speak his message. Alarming, at best. But Mary doesn’t shut him up. Instead, she focuses on him, and what he’s saying. She holds her right hand out, considering, discerning. We almost see her belief in the veracity of this strange message rising as her right hand begins to curl, to accept the word. Do I listen enough in prayer to God? To I give him a chance to tell me what he wants? Or do I interrupt with my own ideas and move on? Or when he calls me to something that sounds impossible, is my first instinct simply, “Must be a wrong number, God. I’m not holy enough for that job!”

Then, I see those lips. Pursed. Firm. Determined. She’s been asked to take on suddenly a spiritual job that at best seems well above her pay grade. At worst, is likely to lead to a quick stoning and death for having gotten herself pregnant before marriage. Yet, she believes. She takes on the mission.

She says yes.

And then the eyes. These are not the far off eyes of a youth who’s heading out to “live her dream”. There is focus. Determination. Love. Obedience. Perseverance.

This is a mission with long odds for success. A small girl, alone, taking on a mission of great danger and risk. Odds are, her bethrothed husband will probably disown her, scandalized. The village will try to stone her. The King will want the child killed, for sure. And if he doesn’t get the boy, the Romans will. Mission impossible.

I’m putting my money on the girl.

If you like this post, please register for the mission next week! More, on three other great art masterpieces that will inspire your missionary heart!


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