2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Sermon Ideas For Luke 1:26-38 Part 6

The Annunciation and the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth furnished artists of the Italian Renaissance with two of their favorite themes.

In Leonardo's Annunciation, the angel's aerodynamic wings, strong enough to bear a human body and colored like a bird's, astonish the viewer into considering what power, recognizable in earthly and natural terms, is represented in this being: there is nothing ethereal about him, but rather an energy that seems vibrant, physical, and intelligent.1

The angel in Gruenewald's Annunciation on the Isenheim altarpiece is also a powerful figure, though sterner and more commanding.2 In Leonardo's painting the angel kneels, losing nothing of his force thereby, before a seated Mary who, though bowed in prayer, is not terrified. In Gruenewald's the angel appears to have appeared in the moment on a rush of wings still open high behind his shoulders, burning orange and flamelike, matched by a swirling robe of flaming red. He lifts a hand toward Mary who, kneeling at her devotions, turns away from him as though she can hardly bear the frightening vision.

Fra Angelico's Annunciation, which greets tourists at the top of the broad stairway in San Marco, is a gentler scene than either of these.3 Pastel colors dominate. Both angel and virgin look more interested than driven by urgency or surprise. Something is being given and received gently. Cooperation is emphasized rather than an intrusion of heavenly power.

In our own generation, Franco Zeffirelli has reimagined this momentous event in terms that reinvigorate both its humanness and its mystery in his film, Jesus of Nazareth. A young peasant girl, Mary, played by Olivia Hussey (whom most audiences can't help remembering as Juliet in an earlier role) is working quietly inside a simple, bare room when a beam of intense light through a high window suddenly falls on her and she shrinks into a corner, frightened and dumbstruck for a moment before she speaks the lines Scripture assigns her. We don't hear the angel's words. They are a privileged message. That silence also serves to remind us how hard it might have been for others (most importantly Joseph) to believe that this was a divine visitation and not a moment of madness.

The story that follows the annunciation, Mary's visit to Elizabeth, has engendered a variety of lovely images of women sharing their secret miracles in a moment of mutual amazement and support. Albertinelli's Visitation characteristically portrays the two women in an embrace, their faces so close they seem to be exchanging breath, not just a long, intimate look. Their hands clasped, they lean into one another in mutual support.4

Rilke's poem, "Mary's Visitation," provides a homely reflection on what that journey to her cousin must have been for the young woman, amazed and pregnant, climbing the hills where she "stood, caught breath, upon on the high / Judean hills."5 "It was not the land / but her abundance that spread out around her…" he writes, leading us as portraiture so often does, to reflect on the way the interior world is made manifest both in the face and body and in the landscape, seen through a lens of faith and feeling. Further in the poem he comments of the two women, "Each, filled with her sanctified possession, / had the protection of a woman friend." It is a compassionate observation; to imagine the isolation of each woman with her divine secret, the mixed blessing of miracles that exposed them to misunderstanding and humiliation, is to recognize what a gift the two women must have been to each other. The line reminds us how grace works in just this way, providing both the ordeal and the means to endure it until the "fullness of time" when it comes to fruition as a blessing.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

1 Leonardo da Vinci, p. 33.

2. Janson, plate 207, p. 140.

3. Fra Angelico: The San Marco Frescoes by Paolo Morachiello, Eleanor Daunt (Translator), Angelico, Museo Di San Marco, Hardcover - 344 pages (December 1996) Thames & Hudson, ISBN: 0500237298.

4. Jones and Penny, p. 22.

5. Rilke, "Mary's Visitation" in The Gospels in Our Image, David Curzon, ed. (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1995), p. 15.