By Mike Jordan Laskey
I used to live near Philadelphia, and every time I’d visit the city’s famous art museum, I would always make a point to spend some time with Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation,” my favorite depiction of the angel Gabriel telling Mary she is going to give birth to the Son of God.
Tanner, the first African American painter to break into the art world establishment, depicts Mary as a Palestinian peasant young adult, a far cry from the otherworldly, angelic images of the Blessed Virgin popular in religious art. No halo, no regal clothing.
I’m amazed by the complexity of emotion Tanner shows us through Mary’s face and body language. Seated on her bed, it appears that she’s been awakened in the middle of the night. She seems both surprised and calm; confident and a little nervous; open to what’s happening but not entirely sure about the details. Her clasped hands are prayerful and peaceful, with no defensiveness at all.
Adding to the power of the scene is the way Tanner depicts Gabriel: not in the form of a person, but as a beam of light. Reproductions of the painting don’t do Tanner’s light justice. There’s mystery in it: Is this how encounters with God work? Was it really not as simple as a human-looking angel with wings hovering and delivering a clearly intelligible message?
We hear in Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation that there was indeed uncertainty that night, as Mary had questions for God upon receiving the confusing news: “How could this be?” She was a real person with real concerns, not a holy robot. The painting reflects Mary’s humanness, which is why I love praying with it: It makes this incredible, inaccessible scene real for me and invites me into the story. It invites me to ask, What is my own response when faced with uncertainty?
There have been countless opportunities to reflect with that very question over the past year. I’m exhausted of all the uncertainty and grateful for the vaccine rollout and what appears to be light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. In the back of my mind are worries about virus variants and a concern that the infection numbers seem to be leveling off after many weeks of falling. This March 25, the Annunciation story is a timely reminder that nothing in life is certain, no matter how much we might long for control and clarity. But we can always count on the Lord’s loving presence to be with us in the mess despite the unknown road ahead.