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12 December 2021
'The Annunciation', 1898, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, American (active France), 1859–1937. Oil on canvas, 57 × 71 1/4 inches. Purchased with the W. P. Wilstach Fund, 1899. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2020.
The kindness of a God who favours us all
Words Star Conliffe
When I was little, my grandmother’s house was one of my favourite places to visit. A devoted Catholic, her home was full of mysterious religious images. I especially loved the icons of the Virgin Mary.
I didn’t really know who Mary was, but I knew that I loved her. This dark-haired beauty who seemed so serene and faultless. In kindergarten, I desperately wanted to play Mary in the school Christmas nativity play. But, of course, a much older girl with beautiful raven hair was chosen, and I was relegated to the chorus of angels.
Why did I love her so much? Perhaps it was simply a little Catholic girl looking for a strong female role model. Perhaps it was because she was the chosen one. She was noticed and favoured by God. Maybe I wanted to be noticed, too.
As I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed. In becoming a mother, I understand better the sacrifice Mary agreed to when she said yes [to having Jesus] that day. But I’m not sure that Mary was so different to any of us.
That is why I love the painting of the Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Mary sits meekly on her bed, her hands clasped. She seems so young and uncertain, so ordinary. The blazing light is Gabriel, a messenger of God who has come to tell Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. We read in the book of Luke that Mary was “greatly troubled at his words”, and so the angel Gabriel must comfort her. He tells her twice that the Lord favours her.
The artist seems to be showing us Mary’s confusion. And why wouldn’t Mary be confused? She cannot even understand how this impossible possibility will come to pass.
Me? Who am I? Why am I favoured? How can the Lord be with me?
Mary knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening.
It is no small thing to be noticed, to be chosen, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be. But maybe that is the story of Christmas. Maybe this is God’s proof to us that we are all chosen. We are all regarded with favour, not because of anything special we have done, but because God loves us and has noticed us, too. The kindness of a God who would show love to all of us ordinary people by becoming one of us.
In this season of Advent (lead-up to Christmas), in the middle of everything that is this season, I invite you to remember that God favours you, too. God’s presence is with you right now. Amid the busyness of this month, take time to be still and ponder, how can this be?
Captain Star Conliffe is a Salvation Army officer (pastor) in Victoria.