Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Annunciate, 
Painting by Gerard David (1455–1523),
Painted in 1510,
Oil on oak panel,
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Annunciate, 
Painting by Gerard David (1455–1523),
Painted in 1510,
Oil on oak panel,
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Gospel of 20 December 2019

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Nazareth

Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?’ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’ the angel answered ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.’ ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.

Reflection on the Painted Panels

In today’s reading we see how Mary didn’t run away when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. Instead, she listened, asked a question (‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?’) and then took the decision to accept God’s invitation. She couldn’t have possible understood everything that was going on, but just wilfully and joyfully participated in the mystery. This reading is all about invitation and response; God’s call and our free will to decide whether to follow that call or not.

The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the small city of Nazareth, which was in stark contrast to the big city of Jerusalem. Most of the readings of these past weeks we looked at put Jerusalem firmly centre stage. So God could have easily chosen someone in Jerusalem, centre of the Jewish world, to draw attention to the fact He was sending his son into the world. But God chose the small city of Nazareth to bring His Son into the world. He would be able to grow up there, discreetly, under the radar, learn from his father in his carpenter’s workshop…  till He would start his ministry at the age of 30.

Gerard David, based in Bruges, painted these two stunning Annunciation panels. These panels, depicting the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate, originally formed the movable wings of an altarpiece. The panels are executed in ‘grisaille’ effect. This is a technique by which a painting is executed entirely in shades of grey to create the illusion of sculpture. Yet the flesh tones and hair of the figures depart from the monochromatic grey, in keeping with the softer, naturalistic vein prevalent in Bruges painting at the turn of the 15th century. I love the dove as well depicted above Our Lady, symbolic of course for the Holy Spirit. The writers of the Old Testament used the image of the dove already as a symbol of purity, gentleness, and grace… Hail Mary, Full of Grace!…

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