Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation in a time of Isolation

I write from home on lockdown eve. A national state of emergency has been enacted, and at midnight on the 25 March 2020, all of Aotearoa New Zealand has been ordered to isolate for the next four weeks. All over my nation, people are returning home. Parents are becoming teachers. Kitchen tables are now work desks, while fridge doors have new daily routines and economic fear gnaws.

Aotearoa New Zealand is not alone. As I write, more than 1.7 billion people worldwide, over a fifth of the world’s population, are secluding themselves at home.

In the calendar of the church, the 25 March is a Principal Feast. Hence on this 2020 lockdown eve, the lectionary texts revolve around the annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In Luke 1:26–38, the angel appears to Mary, announcing good news. God is conceiving life, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In the tradition of the church, this announcement of God’s activity is in the context of seclusion.

This is beautifully portrayed in The Annunciation, an artwork by Filippo Lippi (1450s), that hangs in Room 58 of the National Gallery in London. Mary is (humanly) alone. She is seated inside a house, isolated from the outdoors by a stone wall. Behind her is stone stairs, suggesting further layers of enclosure. In front of her is the garden, although even that is enclosed. This is a woman alone and physically separated. Whether this was reality, we do not know. How much of this is patriarchy, with Mary entombed by external prejudices and cultural bias, whether from century villagers or fourteenth century is also unclear.

What is clear is that in this isolation, Mary is surrounded by Divine activity. She stares at an angel, who has slipped over the enclosed garden wall to kneel in respect. Above Mary is the hand of God, a motif present in so much baptismal art. Filippo Lippi presents the hand as breaking through the roof, a foreshadowing of the paralytic who will descend through the roof to be forgiven and healed by Jesus in Mark 2:1–12.

A bird hovers in front of Mary’s womb. The detail is extraordinary. A spray of golden particles issues from the beak of the dove. It is common in Annunciation art for the dove to be located above Mary’s head. Filippo Lippi provides a new intimacy, as the Spirit draws near to the womb the angel is blessing. Annunciation thus offers a theology of isolation.

First, what is clear is that a home is a place of encounter. Much of religious activity is centred on the church. We expect the Spirit to be present Sunday by Sunday as the faithful gather around the body of Christ. In the annunciation, God is present in the home. This is good news for the millions of humans currently in lockdown. As we gaze longingly at our gardens, God’s hand can enter our rooms. As an external virus entombs us, God’s Spirit draws near.

Blessed are the secluded
For they will experience God

Second, the house protects. The womb of Mary will house the son of God. God’s Spirit’s draws near, proclaiming favour on the womb of Mary. This womb will house the son of God. In the flow of blood and the bodily tasks of eating and drinking, Divine life is safeguarded. This is what makes Christianity radical, for in God, bodies matter. This is the genius of Filippo Lippi. Mary’s womb, that human body that will house the divine body, is inside a house. Do the stone walls enclose? Or do they protect?

Blessed is the home
For protecting of divine encounter

Third, in seclusion is new life. The word “conceive” is used twice (verses 31 and 36), as is the word “birth” (verses 31 and 35). So much of Christianity seems focused on death, yet the story of Jesus brims with new life. The Spirit that hovers over Mary is the Spirit that hovers over the waters in Genesis 1:2. It is the Spirit that makes birth again possible for Nicodemus in John 3:4–6. It is the Spirit that groans with creation in the pains of childbirth in Romans 8:22–23. In 2020, this same conceiving Spirit continues to hover over our locked-down bodies. Bonhoeffer wrote that in birth, God in Jesus Christ claims space in the world as a “narrow space” in which the whole reality of the world is revealed (Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer-Reader’s Edition)).

This narrow space that is the hope of a new creation is conceived in the four walls that enclose Mary. In 2020, the narrow spaces that are the four walls of our home might yet be the womb of God’s new creation. Might we emerge into a new world in which a universal basic income protects the vulnerable? Might we cultivate different habits, like sabbath and localism, which change the nature of global pollution?

Blessed is time
For in the moment is grace

Fourth, an agency is established. In Luke 1:26-38, despite being secluded, Mary is no passive passenger. She is an agent, choosing to open herself to God’s mission of favour. As she utters the words “Here I am” (verse 38), she is locating herself in the genealogy of God’s servants. She is taking her place alongside Moses in Exodus 3:4 and the prophet in Isaiah 6:8.

How might Mary’s agency be portrayed in art? What Filippo Lippi does is extraordinary. A close examination of The Annunciation shows a spray of golden particles pours from the beak of the hovering dove. An answering spray of gold golden particles issues from a tiny parting in the tunic of Mary. This is Mary “active and outgoing” according to John Drury, former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford (Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings, Yale University Press, 1999, 53). In enclosure, Mary is open. Secluded, she is receptive. This is the art of imagination, not the precision of science. Yet in the poetry is a theology of isolation.

Blessed are the isolated
For they participate in God’s conceiving

In time, Mary will be no stranger to sorrow. The years that lie ahead of her will be stained by tears and pain. God’s favour is no offer of a rosy garden. Yet on the Feast of Annunciation, we in 2020 find a theology of isolation. Enclosed in our homes, God’s Spirit is active. Entombed by the invisible, we have agency. In the narrow space in which we, as a global society, find ourselves, a new world might yet be conceived.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership and explores ecclesiologies of birth and conception in First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God. This post also appears on the SCM blog as part of their #TheologyinIsolation series.

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