Advent in Art 12: Derek McCormack

Derek McCormack
Sunday, 2 December 2012


Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you!


From the Gospel of Luke, we read:


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, favoured 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 favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.


Advent, Christmas, the whole season, it’s a paste-up. Layer upon layer of announcements posted, pasted on the walls of our years, year after year. Christmas is layers of legends, of meanings and memories, of emotions and errors, of history and hope, of lost things and longings. What’s the real story? Much of what we know or think comes from carols and cards – not the Bible.


The “ox and ass before him bow,” three wise men, trees, turkey, Santa Claus, candles, the holly and the ivy, sleigh-bells ringing, reindeer, they’re not in the Bible. Even the position in the calendar of Christmas day, the date, is a fake


But in spite of all that – maybe even because of all that - the essence still comes through clearly, strongly. The paste-up on the walls of our ordinary lives still announces that a great thing has come to pass --‐ the thing longed for in history, and longed for in every life, longed for in so many different ways.


And this great thing is first announced to a virgin, and the announcement is that the virgin will give birth to a son. It is the opposite of the creation of humanity in the biblical Eden story. In the Eden story, in a one‐off one-of-a‐kind event, a woman is brought out of a man ‐ oppositely to all subsequent human experience ‐ with no part played by a woman. Instead, it is by the work of God. God puts Adam to sleep and takes from his side part of him from which he makes Woman.


And then in the Christmas event, there is a great reversal of Eden, and a man‐child who some call the second Adam, comes out of a woman in the normal way for humans, but in this one‐off one‐of‐a‐kind event there is no part played by a man. Instead, it is accomplished by the work of God.


The culmination of one event brings death – the other life. It is a marvelous parallel, or circle, or spiral upward. Both bring forth children of God because God instead of a human parent is one of the necessary actors.


But even this wonderful part of the great Christmas story is torn and ripped and pasted up. There are aspects of the angel’s message to Mary, and its subsequent birth, that have been hotly disputed over the centuries ever since.


Of course nowadays we hear people say, “well we know about DNA now so we know that can’t be true. We can’t possibly believe it in a Scientific Age. They only believed it back then because they were ignorant but we know it’s impossible”. But that sort of talk is just the arrogance of modernism. A virgin birth was just as unbelievable back then. The biblical folk and everyone since knew it was impossible. That’s why it was a big deal, and why, even then, controversial.


The "virgin birth" is not found in all the gospels. It ‘s not mentioned in Mark's gospel, nor by John, who refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father. Paul, says that Jesus was "born of a woman" without mentioning that the woman was a virgin.


But Matthew in the opening passages to his gospel refers to a biblical prophecy of a virgin birth and sees the fulfillment of the prophecy in the birth of Jesus.


Luke gives a direct account of the events. It is possible – so the tradition goes – that Luke actually interviewed Mary for his account. There are biblical hints that he travelled with Paul, and if he went to Judea he could have had the opportunity at the very least to interview someone who knew Mary well. This would explain his focus with considerable detail on Mary’s experience. However, even with firsthand testimony to work with, one can sense that Luke – who is described as a doctor – perhaps struggled to believe what he had heard, just as we might, and so he added the angel’s conclusion, “for nothing is impossible with God”, as a solution for those like him who found it absolutely unlikely.


Matthew also gives a possible hint of doubt. Unusually for the time, he lists four women along with Mary, amongst the forty men in the genealogy that he sets out for Jesus. All four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” or Bathsheba as she is better known, are of questionable sexual propriety but nevertheless something good comes of them in each case, and it comes specifically from (perhaps because of as much as in spite of) their questionable sexual behaviour. Mary is placed alongside these women of Jewish history rather than more seemly matriarchs like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah.


As for the prophecy quoted by Matthew, it foretells a virgin birth only by virtue of a peculiar translation. The prophecy he takes from Isaiah, that a virgin will give birth, isn’t exactly in the Hebrew version of Isaiah. It first appears in a Greek translation called the Septuagint, which was the Greek bible of Jesus’ day, used widely by Jews who lived in the many lands of the Hellenistic world.


Isaiah 7:14 is the verse in question. It is found in a passage where Isaiah is prophesying to King Ahaz of Judah that God will destroy his enemies. As a sign that the prophecy is true, Isaiah predicts that a young woman will soon give birth to a child whose name will be Immanuel, and that the threat from enemy kings will be ended before the child grows up. The child’s name, Immanuel, means God with us.


But the Hebrew of the original uses a word almah, meaning a young woman of childbearing age who has not yet had a child; it might include a virgin but doesn’t necessarily mean a virgin. The Hebrew word bethulah means virgin and it appears in Isaiah four times but not in Isaiah 7:14. Even so, almah was translated in the Septuagint into the Greek word parthenos, unequivocally a virgin. And going with the Septuagint (and other later translations of the Jewish testaments) the English King James Bible translated Isaiah’s almah as “virgin”.


In 1952, the English Revised Standard Version of the Bible was completed in modern English and in it the translators altered the King James Version’s Isaiah 7:14 to read "young woman’ to match the original Hebrew. This alteration set off a storm of controversy. Fundamentalist Christians were outraged. One pastor of a Southern Baptist church in the United States burned a copy of the Revised Standard Version in his pulpit, proclaiming that like the devil this demonic translation had to burn. Many conservative Christians still judge Bible translations by the Isaiah 7:14 test – if it has ‘virgin’ it is good, but if not it is untrustworthy.


The advocates for the virgin translation have some fair arguments. First, the seventy Jewish scholars, who were the translators for the Greek Septuagint (Septuagint means the seventy) and who were no doubt expert in both Hebrew and Greek had chosen to use the word parthenos – virgin. They must have known something. Second, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew endorsed that choice by quoting the Greek with ‘virgin’ in it when he referred to the prophecy.


Of course, many Jewish scholars and skeptics question Matthew’s use of this verse, accusing him of making up a prophecy to boost Jesus credentials. They say that the message of Isaiah to Ahaz had already been fulfilled back in those days and hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. But, if Matthew is guilty on that score, then it might strengthen the case for the virgin birth of Jesus. The fact that Matthew chose a prophecy that he thought referred to a virgin birth that was yet to come makes more likely his real belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. If he didn’t believe it why chose a prophecy that he could twist to foretell it? It wouldn’t have been a story made up to fit a prophecy. It would have been the other way around, a prophecy made up to support a story already circulating and accepted by early Christians.


Another dispute concerning the annunciation as recorded in the Bible concerns how the angel greets Mary. “Greetings, favoured one”, as it was in the version that we read earlier is given in bibles of the Catholic tradition as “Hail full of grace.” The Catholic rendering is derived from the Latin Vulgate Bible, first translated by Saint Jerome in the fourth century. It became the Bible for the Roman Latin‐speaking world and the Roman Catholic Church.


The New Testament was written originally in Greek, and Jerome translated its angel’s greeting to Mary as “Ave plena gratias” – Latin for Hail full of grace. But the Greek words for “full of grace” are only used twice in the New Testament, neither referring to Mary. Most protestant translations avoid Jerome’s “full of grace” preferring, as we read, “favoured one” or something like it, which is closer to what it says in the original Greek. But you might well ask, why it matters at all which one is used?


The Angel’s “hail, full of grace” seems to emphasize that Mary has her own grace, which, so one argument goes, is combined with God’s grace in the becoming of Jesus. This interpretation is consistent with Catholic doctrines about Mary that come from traditions not otherwise grounded in the Bible, such as:


  • The immaculate conception – that is, that Mary was not born into sin as the rest of the human race is, because to be the vessel of the Son of God she must be sinless herself;

  • The doctrine that Mary was sinless and therefore virginal all her life, because sex was the mode of transmission of original sin according to that doctrine; and,

  • That Mary was assumed into heaven where she is mother to us all, our intercessor with God --‐ thus the Catholic prayer beginning “Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with you” which goes on to say “pray for us now and at the hour of our death”.


Protestants from their earliest days have generally been against extra‐biblical doctrines and so have been against the veneration of saints, and the icons, the relics, and the prayers to the saints that have gone with them. The traditions about Mary have been regarded with the same dim view. So, favored one rather than full of grace, while almost meaning the same thing, might seem safer theologically to the protestant mind as well as truer to the original Greek of the Gospel of Luke.


But many claim that Jerome knew what he was doing and that “Hail full of grace” is good for the Greek when taken in the context and within the structure of what is written. Even Martin Luther, the first official protestant, was happy with the German version for it in his translation.


Of course, full of grace doesn’t have to refer exclusively to someone who has unique grace of her own – it might just as well describe someone who is full of the gift of God’s unwarranted blessing, that is God’s grace, and we all might answer to that description.


And I like it, so that’s what we’ve got here on the image I have prepared.


In the image [referring to the artwork] we see the words “hail, full of grace!” “the Lord is with you” repeated and overlaid along with, though less often, “His name shall be called Immanuel” and words from the Magnificat (Mary’s song found later in the advent record of Luke) “His love will last for ever” “He has lifted up the Lowly” and words from Isaiah, “the bruised reed He will not break, the smoldering wick he will not snuff out”. These words stream across and through the image repetitively from edge to edge, filling the boundaries, hinting that they possibly come from and go beyond the frame.


The faces of the image reference both the real and the mythological. One is a rendering of a photograph of an actor playing Mary, Olivia Hussey (not a particularly appropriate name for a virgin). The moment that we see her is from the film Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli in the scene when she has just heard the voice of the Angel – she looks surprised, perhaps afraid.


The other face is the goddess Venus taken from the Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Here she represents goddess, the mythological, the old world religions, soon to be replaced by Mary, and together the two females draw opposites --‐ the goddess of love and passion versus the symbol of chaste virginity, the goddess of otherworldliness versus a real girl in a real time in our real world.


The Venus image also stands for the angel speaking into Mary’s ear. She is there but not there, translucent, transparent, in a form of reality that is shown mostly in the sharpening and highlighting of the ever‐present words. With the Venus image I have chosen a female as an angel. I was reading something by a contemporary artist who had painted an annunciation with the angel as a muscular outline of a man filled in with flowers. He had commented that he wanted to go against the tradition of effeminate angel images most commonly used. But I say, let’s keep that annunciation angel effeminate. The angel’s message is about womanly matters why wouldn’t the angel have taken on its most female cast for this conversation?


The angel begins the announcement with a greeting: Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you!


What strikes me about the angel’s greeting, according to the gospel account and unlike the rosary prayer, is that the “Mary” isn’t in it. The angel doesn’t say Hail Mary. You’d think he/she would address her by name – but instead s/he uses a description, not a name --‐ “full of grace!”


And having noticed that, what sticks in my mind is that this angel’s hail could be a general address, a great call streaming throughout the Cosmos – “hail full of grace ” – repeatedly, yearningly, insistently, eternally – words woven into the fabric of Creation.


“Hail full of grace,” perhaps meaning: Hail all of you who have found unwarranted great favour. Hail all of you who hear this message, who have listened, who have chosen to hear. Hail to you, the Lord is with you!”


And Mary heard! She heard and something amazing happened. The Lord came to be with us.


But if this greeting that Mary heard might be a greeting to all, then perhaps we don’t need to think of Christmas only in terms of way back then and way over there. Perhaps Mary, with all her specialness, is a symbol, an exemplar, standing for us all wherever, whenever.


And we might wonder if this great Hail is still there for us to hear? And if so, are we all able, wherever we are, whoever we are, to give birth, like Mary, to the second Adam into our world, to the God with us, to the Immanuel, to the object of the human dream that love comes down among us? The dream that we remember most at Christmas--‐time with the signs and symbols of abundance and goodwill and gifts and charity and childlike wonder and comfort and joy and families united and welcoming to strangers and laughter and life – at least that’s the dream of it – that’s the longing of it --‐ that’s the call of it.


Now the word of this great Hail, might not be more than an inkling to us, a notion, an awareness, leading to a conviction, an assurance, a confidence, like a light shining in the darkness. As is written at the beginning of the Gospel of John – in place of a Christmas birth story – the word of the Creation, the Word that was there at the beginning of everything, that cosmic word, became flesh and dwelt among us as a “light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it”.


And through this extension of the advent into each one of our lives, perhaps we might see that this light, the Light that one of the Christmas carol prays, might ‘be born in us today’, might not only be born in us, but born through us into the places, the situations, the families, the communities, the very worlds, that we inhabit every day?


So may we all hear the angel call, ‘Hail, full of grace. The Lord is with you’. Hail, full of grace, all of you, whoever you are, wherever you are. Because we are all, full of the grace of God!