Halfway through the year, a visitor appeared to a teenaged girl. This was no ordinary visitor. The visitor greeted the girl, who was perplexed, even troubled, by the greeting. Why had this extraordinary visitor come? Don’t be afraid, the visitor told her, and then went on to say that the girl had found favor with God and would conceive and bear a son. The visitor told her the son’s name and predicted greatness for him—a throne, even. This troubled the girl even further. She’d never slept with a man, as she pointed out to the visitor—how could she conceive? And, what about that man she was pledged to be married to—well, what would he think when she conceived by another? The visitor explained the details—up to a point. All things are possible with God. And then an amazing thing happened, perhaps the most amazing thing in the whole amazing story. The girl said Okay. She accepted the news. And then the visitor left.
Yesterday morning, I heard this story read aloud for probably close to the fiftieth time, in different words from those above. Certain phrases struck me, as they always do: Do not be afraid. She wondered what kind of greeting this might be. Overpowered by the Most High. And, yesterday, as though hearing it for the first time, Then the angel departed.
The gospels are full of stories, and these twelve verses tell just one. If we strip the narrative of its implications for a moment and think of it just as a story, not as part of that story, we notice a few things. I’m not talking here about what happens next in chapter 1, important as that might be—Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, say, or Mary’s song of praise, or the naming of John, or Zechariah’s getting his speech back—just about these twelve verses between Mary and the angel, rendered over the centuries as poetry and art and gorgeous Byzantine icons. Just those twelve verses, just the visit.
There’s tension—conflict, even, and crisis and resolution. We have characters—two whom we see directly, Mary and Gabriel, the girl and the angel, and five others who are named, Elizabeth and Joseph and David and God and Jesus. In this way, Mary’s personal drama fits into a wider context of family and tribe and people and history and creation. Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, those are the narrative facts.
What struck me yesterday, listening to Luke 1:26-38, was just this: the narrative. I guess because I’ve been struggling with narrative of my own. For that reason, I think, I was stunned by those four words that close this particular episode. Then the angel departed. So simple, and so powerful. In a way, ambiguous. The angel left, after depositing this bombshell on the girl. He’s explained it to her, he’s reassured her, he’s told her not to fear and that she’s found favor and that her baby will achieve great things—never mind for a moment that he hasn’t predicted the pain and sorrow—but still. Having been a young teenaged girl myself—and most scholars agree that Mary would have been about fourteen—I think she must have felt a bit, well, dazed. She’s said Yes to God, in an enormous act of faith and humility—a Yes that will resonate down through the millennia, a Yes of acceptance of what will come. And at the same time, she must feel utterly overwhelmed and terrified and maybe even a little giddy. To be told such news! No wonder she runs off to visit Elizabeth, her relative. Who wouldn’t want to share this news?—but not with anyone. Elizabeth knows about amazing news, having conceived in a surprising way herself. Elizabeth, this unwed pregnant teen can trust. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Then the angel departed. We could read it a number of ways: he’s done his job, time to go; she’s on her own now. And just where does Gabriel go when he departs, and how? Through the door, behind the drapes in one of those Dutch master annunciations, into thin air? Fra Angelico’s fresco in San Marco in Florence, Italy, shows Mary in a colonnaded shelter, with what looks like a tiny jail cell behind her, Gabriel approaching as if from across the lawn scattered with millefleurs. The two mimic each other’s posture, arms crossed in front, shoulders slumped forward, knees bent under folds of blue (Mary) and pink (Gabriel), as they bow to one another, an acanthus-capitaled column between them. Girl and angel occupy two separate spaces, architecture and geometry delineating what my friend Eva Bovenzi calls the meeting of matter and spirit. (Eva’s Messenger series was influenced, in part, by this fresco). How would a girl respond to such a visit? How would anyone? With grief, relief, a little of both? Wait, don’t go! I have a few more questions.
In that way, the four words take us back, to the almost-ending. Be it unto me, according to your word. Ah, there’s what we need. There’s Mary’s change—clearly shown, as any teacher of narrative craft would advise, in this case in dialogue. Mary’s acceptance makes the power of Then the angel departed so resonant. It doesn’t explain any further, or try to. Or need to. Still, it creates wonder—and isn’t that what all good endings should do?
*with apologies to Julian Barnes, and thanks to Callie Feyen