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  • Steve Auth

Happy Feast of the Annunciation…

The Perfect “Yes”*
Antonello da Messina, Virgin Annunciate, 1476, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily, special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005

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

As we enter the scene, we see a young woman, alone — in the dark. There is no architectural setting around her. The area behind her is simply black darkness. A quiet pervades the scene.

We assume this is Mary, perhaps in the solitude of her private chamber. Before her lies an open book, perhaps the Psalms; it seems she has been reading them here in her room. She is 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? Would my heart be prepared enough to see an angel from God if he entered my room?

Speaking of the angel, where is he? We know he’s there — the sudden wind from his entrance on the scene is blowing the pages of the book. But we can’t see him. In this almost revolutionary gesture (there is no Annunciation scene that I know of that does not include the image of the angel), Antonello 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 we see Mary clasping her shawl 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 on what he’s saying. She holds out her right hand, 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? Do I give Him a chance to tell me what He wants? Or do I interrupt with my own ideas and move on?

Then I see those lips. Pursed. Firm. Concerned, yet determined. Mary has been asked to take on a spiritual job that at best seems well above her pay grade. To the outside eye, it’s likely to lead to a quick stoning and death for having gotten herself pregnant before consummating her marriage to Joseph, particularly if he should denounce her publicly. 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,” to “do her thing.” 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. Her betrothed husband might very well disown her, scandalized. The village would then likely try to stone her. The King will want the child killed, for sure. And if he doesn’t get the boy, the Romans will. The only escape hatch is a dangerous five-hundred-mile trip across an arid, lawless desert wasteland. Mission impossible.

But look at that face again.

I’m putting my money on the girl.

Excerpt from Stephen F. Auth, Pilgrimage to the Museum, forthcoming from Sophia Institute Press, July 2022.

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