Not a Pious Fable on Obedience

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

In postulancy, Jim Scullion, OFM introduced us to visio divina. It is lectio divina but instead of words, we use images from scriptures to reflect on the Word of God. He showed us Tanner’s Annunciation and one interpretation has always stood out for me. Sergio, a former classmate, interpreted Mary seen here clasping her hands, as being overwhelmed by the thought of becoming the mother of God. And that perhaps this event took longer than it did for us to read the entire passage. Sergio saw Mary mulling over Gabriel’s message and argued that it might have actually taken her the entire night to wrestle with her doubts on how this could be fulfilled in her. Finally came the break of day and she said yes, not because she relented but because she finally embraced mystery. I am now approaching my 3rd year of vowed life and Sergio’s reflection has only gotten more relevant for me.

The more I reflect on this passage especially in moments when I struggle with my vow of obedience, the more I am convinced that this event was never meant to be a pious fable on obedience. For every hope and struggle that deepened my appreciation of this passage, one thing has become clearer to me — the heart of the matter of this event was Mary’s struggle to hold the tension between her own doubts and her desire to follow God, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” she challenged Gabriel. Her obedience is as significant as the process she went through to embrace something beyond her understanding. To me this is the real basis of her humility.

Lesley Hazleton, an Islamic scholar, commenting on the significance of the Prophet Mohammed’s doubts upon his encounter with Allah has this to say about the similar process which Mary wrestled with and I quote, “Abolish all doubt and what’s left is not faith but absolute heartless conviction, you’re certain that you possess the truth and this quickly devolves to dogmatism and righteousness. By which I mean a remonstrated over weaning pride in being so very right.” We see none of this in Mary but a consciousness of her limits and doubts. For us it is our tendency to be right, I know this to be true for me because of the ego I sometimes cannot let go of. This is why I am convinced Mary is so crucial to our understanding of our Franciscan identity.

I borrow from the wisdom of one our friars. Convinced that he had all the answers when he missioned in Japan, Flavian Walsh confessed, “I came to Japan knowing all the answers but no one was asking me any questions! I began to read again the writings of St. Francis…Francis was saying that the missionary simply must live among people and make the divine quality of the Gospel visible…Who would not wonder at the man or woman who goes about the world without judging others? …It dawned on me that I do not need to have all the answers. I was simply called to live among people as a Christian, to listen to them and serve them.” It’s already challenging to realize that I do not have all the answers but more challenging than this is listening to the beat of God’s heart among the people I serve and encounter whether inside or outside the friary. This is because the way I listen to that beat is also influenced by my own prejudices, bias and personal history. It’s likely that Mary also had her own concept of the role which women like her played in God’s plan of salvation. To be part of that plan is just something beyond her. Luke echoes Mary’s sentiments in the Magnificat – “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”

Mary’s divine quality was characterized by her role in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Fulfilling her role was not natural. She also struggled through God’s plan of salvation, wrestling, questioning, but always walking with God in humble service. Her next move was to visit and accompany her cousin Elizabeth, also embroiled in this unfathomable plan of salvation. Yes, God’s design is often unfathomable and it creates tensions and yearnings that sometimes we can never describe in words even in our own prayer. What do we do?

Gabriel assured Mary, “The Holy Spirit will overpower you.” Paul wrote a similar affirmation to the Romans, “But the spirit himself intercedes for us in groans too deep for words.” Paul’s take on the action of the Holy Spirit convinces me that the Annunciation is not about a narrow focus on Mary’s, “be it done to me according to your word”. Such approach on obedience can disenfranchise us of the struggle we go through to give our all to God, and in effect disenfranchise the work of the Holy Spirit in us. God’s plan of salvation continues to unfold with the same force of love that fulfilled the incarnation of Jesus Christ so that our struggles, our human brokenness more than our strengths and abilities remain the target of that force – “because he has remembered his promise of mercy.”

Every time I end my prayer and reflection on this passage I ask God a question, “So what now? What do you want me to create out of this struggle? How can this serve you?” The answers I get vary. Sometimes, I get the impression that the Holy Spirit himself has a very complex mind, almost like that of an artist. I can’t blame Mary for challenging the Angel Gabriel for being so vague. Yet, I find that God’s heart is always simple and always loving. I hope we all encounter God’s heart as we wrestle with our life’s toughest questions in relation to others and ourselves. Only through God’s heart can we really hold all the tensions that result from our attempts to give our all to God. To me that is what makes a well-discerned obedience. Happy Feast!

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William Holman Hunt’s rich symbolism depicting the Lost and Finding of the Savior at the Temple may overwhelm. Everything, save for the blind man by the entrance is ornately painted.  It’s a buffet of symbols and iconography and is therefore tempting to binge at each of them. I shall focus on the essentials. 
What’s behind the ornate-ness?  Hunt traveled to the Mid-East to study the faces, clothing, cultural objects which might have been common to the world of Jesus (Eschrich, 2006).  The ornate clothing of the rabbis and the Holy Family shrewdly guide viewers to focus on their social locations and their facial expressions.  The rabbis’ robes connote teaching authority in the temple, while the peasant clothes of the Holy Family argue that they are not mainstays at the richly gilded interior of the temple. The tattered clothes of the blind…

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