There have been many different depictions of the Annunciation in Christian art down through the centuries, all of them trying to capture something of that seminal moment when Mary learns that she has been chosen to be the mother of a very special Child, of a Savior. One of my favorite versions of the Annunciation was painted in 1850 by the British artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He called his version Ecce Ancilla Domini, Latin for “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord.” These are Mary’s words in Luke 1:38, and the central part of this passage from Scripture. For Mary’s response to Gabriel is just as awe-inspiring and miraculous as the news the angel brings her. It leads us to ponder this question…What does it mean for God to call us to something beyond what we may think we’re capable of? And yet not as an inevitable command, but rather as an invitation that waits for our response? Mary’s response to Gabriel’s announcement is a statement of perfect peace and resignation—“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord!” This verse for me is one of the most significant in all of Scripture because of the importance of what consequently unfolds. Mary gives her assent to be at the very epicenter of God’s great redemptive plan—with a history that stretches all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Let’s take a few moments to explore further Luke 1:26-38, the passage of the Annunciation. As we do, we will also see how Rossetti’s painting, and his stylistic choices in depicting this scene can enhance our understanding of what it meant for Mary to say yes to God, and the deeper significance of this phrase–“maidservant of the Lord”.
What does it mean to be the maidservant of the Lord? The maidservant of the Lord lives in an attitude of humility. We see from verse 29 when Mary first is confronted with this heavenly visitor, that she is troubled. She instinctively feels she’s not worthy of the honor of which Gabriel speaks. She knows now, perhaps for the first time, just how intimately and fully God really loves her. The Rossetti painting perfectly captures her attitude. She is shown cornered on her modest bed, pensive, shy, withdrawn, her young face not fully comprehending that God could choose her—of all women! Mary is surrounded by a deep-seated aura of humility. Knowing of God’s love for her, Mary doesn’t feel worthy of it. For humility is a hallmark that love carries with it. Paul describes this for us in 1 Corinthians 13—writing that love is never arrogant. And then Proverbs 3:34 tells us that God gives grace to the humble.
Mary, as the humble handmaiden of the Lord, is the blessed recipient of such grace. And so the maidservant of the Lord is also one who is privileged to share in the eternal. Rossetti’s composition demonstrates subtle touches to remind us that God is at work here—the simple haloes around the head of Gabriel, but also of Mary—who though a mortal woman, is here sharing in the Divine, in the eternal, signified further by the flames which restlessly gather around the Angel’s feet. But what about us? In a world where everything seems to be so fleeting, where death and decay seem to have the last word, how can we remind ourselves, how can we hold onto the truth that we too may be partakers of Eternity? Well, there’s a Christmas symbol that all of us will probably have in our homes this year, and yet maybe we haven’t grasped its fuller significance. The Germans, well-versed in the lore of the season, tell the story of Martin Luther, who by chance was walking in the woods one snowy Christmas Eve. And there he found the snow-flecked trees so beautiful that he was moved to cut down a small evergreen and bring it back to display for his family, decorating it with candles in celebration of the Birth of the Christ Child. In fact, Luther was renewing an old Teutonic tradition. Pagan Germans had once displayed evergreens during their mid-winter celebrations, known as Jul. And then from the time of the Reformation onwards, the displaying of Christmas Trees in German homes became popular, and eventually through Queen Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert in the 19th century, the custom spread into the English-speaking world. But the Christmas tree is not just a festive means of decoration. It’s much deeper than that I believe. For since antiquity, people have had an instinctual reaction towards that which remains green even in the season when all other vegetation dies. The Christmas tree then, passed down through history, is a testament to that sense of eternity which is in our midst as Christians when we celebrate the birth of Christ.
Mary is also reminded of her place in history, as the angel tells her that this child she will bear comes down from the lineage of Jacob, and of David—these great figures of the Jewish past. In fact, Mary’s part in redemption history has even deeper roots. If we go all the way back to the book of Genesis we find this prophecy from God, given just after Adam and Eve have given into temptation and eaten the fruit offered by the serpent. Speaking to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, God says “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” The seeds for Satan’s defeat are thus already being sown even immediately after the Fall of Man takes place. And eventually Mary will be the chosen vessel to bring about God’s Redemptive Son—Jesus. And she will do all of this as an unwed virgin?! Impossible! But to be the maidservant of the Lord is to be witness to a God that can do the impossible. So there is to be another one of those improbable births through which God announces His presence—Sarah and Isaac, Samuel and Hannah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist, and now most miraculously of all Mary, overshadowed by the power of the Highest to give birth. The deeds of this child will be even more miraculous than the manner of His birth however. As Matthew 1:21 proclaims—“And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” And as Gabriel assures Mary in Luke 1:37, “With God nothing will be impossible.” There is an abundance of hope we can take from that promise—a hope which carries a special resonance at Christmastime.
Mary looked past the difficulties, and the improbable, irregular nature of her situation, to eventually find God staring back at her, through the impossible. Sometimes we may sometimes think it improbable, if not impossible that God can work even amidst the most difficult of circumstances….But not only can He work, He wants us to take part with Him. Rossetti’s painting deals with this sense of disbelief that we could actually find ourselves as partners with the Divine. Mary watches the Angel, her thoughts guarded and unknown, pondering everything in her heart. She, a teenage girl of no special standing, has been called, indeed invited to share in God’s work. And yet in her pensive expression is a hint of the joy which follows our disbelief, the joy we experience when we know that God has invited us into His very midst. There’s a wonderful poem by Langston Hughes, called Carol of the Brown King. Written at a time when African-Americans were still second-class citizens in much of America, it celebrates the realization that the ordinary people, and even the outcasts, find themselves welcome at Jesus’ nativity.
Carol of the Brown King–by Langston Hughes
Of the three wise men who came to the King,
One was a brown man, so they sing.
Of the three wise men
Who followed the star,
One was a brown king from afar.
They brought fine gifts of spices and gold
In jeweled boxes of beauty untold.
Unto His humble manger they came
And bowed their heads in Jesus’ name.
Three wise men, one dark like me –
Part of His Nativity.
So when we look at a Nativity scene this Christmas, we should know that we belong there too. The most amazing part of the Annunciation for me is indeed those words, “Ecce ancilla domini”, “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord.” Mary gave her word, so that the Word could be made flesh. This Christmas, let us echo Mary in response to the invitation of God in all our lives…an invitation to something beyond what we think is possible! God waits for our answer, and for us to join Mary at His side.