Where you can read the relatively rational ramblings of a silly half-monkey, half-boy. This freak of nature is named Joel. He also responds to the name 'Bart Wang'.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Annunciation (Frederick Buechner)

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end."
And Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her,
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be called holy,
the Son of God."

Luke 1:26-35 RSV

"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary," and that is the beginning of a story – a time, a place, a set of characters, and the implied promise, which is common to all stories, that something is coming, something interesting or significant or exciting is about to happen. And I would like to start out by reminding my reader that in essence this is what Christianity is. If we whittle away long enough, it is a story that we come to at last. And if we take even the fanciest and most metaphysical kind of theologian or preacher and keep on questioning him far enough – Why is this so? All right, but why is that so? Yes, but how do we know that it’s so? – even he is forced finally to take off his spectacles and push his books off to one side and say, "Once upon a time there was…," and then everybody leans forward a little and starts to listen. Stories have enormous power for us, and I think that it is worth speculating why they have such power. Let me suggest two reasons.

One is that they make us want to know what is coming next, and not just out of idle curiosity either because if it is a good story, we really want to know, almost fiercely so, and we will wade through a lot of pages or sit through a lot of endless commercials to find out. There was a young woman named Mary, and an angel came to her from God, and what did he say? And what did she shay? And then how did it all turn out in the end? But the curious thing is that if it is a good story, we want to know how it all turns out in the end even if we have heard it many times before and know the outcome perfectly well already. Yet why? What is there to find out if we already know?

And that brings me to the second reason why I think stories have such power for us. They force us to consider the question, "Are stories true?" Not just, "Is this story true?" – was there really an angel? Did he really say, "Do not be afraid?" – but are any stories true? Is the claim that all stories make a true claim? Every storyteller, whether he is Shakespeare telling about Hamlet or Luke telling about Mary, looks out at the world much as you and I look out at it and sees things happening – people being born, growing up, working, loving, getting old, and finally dying – only then, by the very process of taking certain of these events and turning them into a story, giving them form and direction, does he make a sort of claim about events in general, about the nature of life itself. And the storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that that life has meaning – that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere. The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story. And this grips us and fascinates us because of the feeling it gives us that if there is meaning in any life – in Hamlet’s, in Mary’s, in Christ’s – then there is meaning also in our lives. And if this is true, it is of enormous significance in itself, and it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all his stories are about us and because it is always possible that he may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is.

The story that Christianity tells, of course, claims to give more than just a clue, in fact to give no less than the very meaning of life itself and not just of some lives but of all our lives. And it goes a good deal further than that in claiming to give the meaning of God's life among men, this extraordinary tale it tells of the love between God and man, love conquered and love conquering, of long-lost love and love that sometimes looks like hate. And so, although in one sense the story Christianity tells is one that can be so simply told that we can get the whole thing really on a very small Christmas car or into the two crossed pieces of wood that form its symbol, in another sense it is so vast and complex that the whole Bible can only hint at it. Where does the story of God and man begin, for instance? Biblically speaking, you would have to say that it begins with Genesis and the picture we get of the Spirit of God brooding over the dark waters of chaos before the great "Let there be light!" of Creation sounded. But that amounts to saying that it has no beginning in time at all. Or where do we say that it ends? With the Crucifixion perhaps, where man brings the story to an end by killing God, or with nuclear war perhaps, where man brings and end by killing himself. But the answer to this is, "Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth!" and "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live," so the Christian story is beyond time altogether.

Yet it is also in time, the story of the love between God and man. There is a time when it begins, and therefore there is a time before it begins, when it is coming but not yet here, and this is the time Mary was in when Gabriel came to her. It is Advent: the time just before the adventure begins, when everybody is leaning forward to hear what will happen even though they already know what will happen and what will not happen, when they listen hard for meaning, their meaning, and begin to hear, only faintly at first, the beating of unseen wings.

The angel said to her, " 'Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!' But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be." And well she might have been troubled if she had any idea of what lay ahead for her and her baby, and to one degree or another we must believe that she did. In the great medieval paintings of the scene, the Annunciation, the air is painted in gold leaf, and the figures of Mary and Gabriel stand there as still as death. There is no movement. None. Even the robe of the angel, still billowed out by the winds of Heaven, is frozen, and so is the wind itself. Time itself seems to have stopped. It is a moment beyond time. And of course there is truth in these ancient paintings because when our vision of the world suddenly deepens and brightens – when we suddenly see an angel where before we saw only empty space, when in a flash of light we have the uncanny sense that our lives are not just happening to us but they are trying to tell us something of unspeakable importance – then for a moment we are stunned. We are stopped dead in our tracks, and the whole world holds its breath, and even the air becomes as rich and impenetrable as gold. But that is only part of the truth, because when angels draw near, as they do, the earth begins to shake beneath our feet as it began to shake beneath Mary’s feet, which was why she was greatly troubled. Instead of everything standing still and sure, suddenly nothing is standing still, and everything is unsure. Something new and shattering is breaking through into something old. Something is trying to be born. And if the new thing is going to be born, then the old thing is going to have to give way, and there is agony in the process as well as joy, just as there is agony in the womb as it labors and contracts to bring forth the new life.

But this is the language of poetry, and I use it because it is the language in which the Annunciation is described and the only language in which it can be described. But there are other languages to describe other things. How, for instance, do you describe this world of ours in revolution, a world beneath whose oceans at this moment an American atomic submarine is cruising armed with missiles whose explosive power exceeds that of all the bombs set off in the two world wars? What is trying to happen? Something is trying to happen, we can be sure of that, and the earth is shaking beneath our feet at its approach.

Men have clearly seen something: the Communists have seen it no less clearly than we and in some ways perhaps more clearly. And what men have seen is something that has never existed anywhere in history and exists nowhere today except in their vision of it: a world where men live together as brothers. "No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days. They shall no labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not be hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord."

These are Isaiah’s words for it, the words of poetry again. But it is the same world that Communism is talking about in the words of Marxian economic theory, the same world that the Western Alliance is talking about in the words of Christian Democracy, a world that never was on land or sea but a world that is pressing in upon us through our vision of it. So what do the nations do? Two things at once, I think and things that contradict each other and are always at war. On the one hand, they are trying to materialize the vision, to bring it about. The tools they use are the weapons they have forged in their factories and the political and economic ideas they have forged in their heads. The price that they are all but willing to pay for it is death because there are times when even death seems not too high a price for life, new life. And yet at the same time, and with the same tools, they are trying to prevent its being brought about, to bring about instead not the world of their vision but a man-made version of it, a more reasonable and less demanding facsimile where the serpent gets a little more than dust to eat, and the lion is allowed an occasional taste of blood. We try to fend off this world we yearn for where men live together as brothers because there is something in each of us that wants to live not for his brother but for himself. We fend it off because we know in our terrible wisdom that the price we must pay for it is death, the death of self and all the values of self, the death that must take place before the life can come.

In an odd way it is so comforting to talk about history, even the tragic history of our own times, because it is so much out there somewhere, outside these walls, beyond the town limits, across the river. And all the wars and the treats of war are out there too, and with them the strange thing which is not an angel because we believe there are no angels but which is something of great terror and great beauty gathering to a brightness. The world waits. History waits and labours. Something draws near, and we love its being far away there rather than here, among ourselves. Except, of course, that it is here among us too and within us as we wait for the story to begin, the story whose end we already know and yearn to know again and wish we did not know: the story whose meaning may be our meaning, as we wait for the child to be born.

For this is what Gabriel comes to announce, and Mary stands there as still as life in her blue mantle with her hands folded on her lap, and the terrible salutation is caught like a bird’s wing in the golden net of the air – Ave Maria gratia plena. Dominus tecum. And then she hears him say, "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name..." But she knows his name before Gabriel says it, just as we also know his name, because the child who is going to be born is our child as he is her child. He is that which all the world’s history and all of our own inner histories have been labouring to bring forth. And it will be no ordinary birth but a virgin birth because the birth of righteousness and love in this stern world is always a virgin birth. It is never men nor the nations of men nor all the power and wisdom of men that bring it forth but always God, and that is why the angel says, "The child to be born will be called the Son of God."

Here at the end let me tell you a story which seems to me to be a kind of parable of the lives of all of us. It is a peculiarly twentieth-century story, and it is almost too awful to tell: about a boy of twelve or thirteen who, in a fit of crazy anger and depression, got hold of a gun somewhere and fired it at his father, who died not right away but soon afterward. When the authorities asked the boy why he had done it, he said that it was because he could not stand his father, because his father demanded too much of him, because he was always after him, because he hated his father. And then later on, after he had been placed in a house of detention somewhere, a guard was walking down the corridor late one night when he heard sounds from the boy’s room, and he stopped to listen. The words that he heard the boy sobbing out in the dark were, "I want my father, I want my father."

Our father. We have killed him, and we will kill him again, and our world will kill him. And yet he is there. It is he who listens at the door. It is he who is coming. It is our father who is about to be born. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Reprinted without permission.

Buechner, Frederick. The Magnificent Defeat. New York: HarperCollins, 1985.


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