Annunciation, if we are to take the calendar seriously and assume nine months to the date of Christmas, is an event for the late spring, March 25. This coincides with the Jewish tradition of the anniversary of the creation. That seems quaint, perhaps, in an era in which we (some of us) measure the process of creation in millions of years. But what have we gained by not noting the anniversary of the creation?
This annunciation is from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. It is one of the oldest known depictions of the scene from Luke 1:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. (Luke 1:26-31).
I get a strange feeling inside when I look at this image. For one, it defies my idea of annunciation as a private moment... how many angels, six that we can see? And Mary looks like a stately Roman matron, not the frightened Jewish peasant girl she must have been. The strange feeling comes, in part, from having my expectations thwarted (Welcome to Advent! Thwarting Expectations since 4 BCE!). In part, if I'm honest, it's like the feeling I get looking at old daugerreotypes or sepia-tinted photos from the 19th century. A feeling that, these people lived. And they still matter. They're still very, very real.
And who, pray tell, is the gentleman to the far right? Would that be Joseph? Looking appropriately freaked?
How can this, any of this, be?