Why didn’t Jesus show up like an angel? Simply materialize, even out of view, until he began his public ministry? Why empty himself, leave heaven…for all those months of gestation and infancy? For childhood in the outback with siblings who ultimately opposed him? Why draw a willing but naïve peasant girl into a shameful scandal? These questions disturb me…the same way Bruce Herman’s painting “Mary Overshadowed” does.
Bruce, a painter and the Lothlorien Professor of Art at Gordon College, takes as his subject Luke 1:35. The angel Gabriel has just told Mary that she will bear the promised Messiah. Mary responds, not with unbelief or skepticism like Zachariah, but in wonder, "’How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’”
I’ve never heard a Christmas carol or seen a Christmas card that celebrates this sacred moment as Bruce has done, and yet it seems this moment, more than the stable, the shepherds the wise men, holds the greatest power and meaning of Christmas. Bruce’s painting bears a lengthy look. The longer I've looked, the more deeply I've been moved.
Mary is transported out of our dimension of reality, which we can barely glimpse out the doorway to the left, into the reality of the shekinah glory of God, symbolized by the golden wall with the seven bright gold squares in the middle—seven being the symbol of perfection in Scripture.
And yet, the wall is tinged with red, organic blotches. The perfection of God is taking on flesh and blood. I turn the image upside down and ponder the expression on Mary’s face: wonder, awe, transport. It compels me to reflect on the essence of the incarnation.
The longer I walk with God, the more it becomes clear that union with God in Christ is the point of…the universe, history, my life…everything. We tend not to value living our days and moments with that presence the way Moses did. The Lord promised Moses in Exodus 33:"’My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Then Moses said to him, ‘If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.’”
Many of us might have been pleased to settle for an angel accompanying us on our journey. But Moses wanted God. That Singular presence in the shining pillar of cloud and fire.
And God wants us. He wants our heart of hearts...our laughter, our tears, our loneliness, our wonder, our worship. He wants us to share our days and moments with him. He wants to give us his life in our minds, souls and bodies. He wants to invade our lives as deeply and profoundly and with such tangible consequences as he invaded Mary’s body.
The mystery of the incarnation is the same mystery of our lives with Christ: “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27).
I’m sure there were many reasons for the infancy and childhood of Christ. But surely one reason was to give us, in the moment of Mary’s overshadowing and it’s ensuing consequences, a magnificent picture of what God’s love means for us: the potential of union with the God of the Universe. Experiencing all that love, joy, goodness, justice, mercy and joy in the depths of our being. You just can’t out-metaphor God.
I take such delight in a God of awesome beauty who delights in giving us living and artistic pictures that reach our imaginations and hearts in ways that logic and reason cannot. I am deeply appreciative of great artists like Bruce who ask the questions I need to ask and reflect on the things I need to think about.
As Mary’s face in Bruce’s painting gives us a glimpse of the depth of awe and wonder that can be ours, may we say “Yes” to that great Invasion, as she said yes…and expect similarly thunderous consequences.