David A. Davis
December 19, 2021
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Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African American artist if the late 19th century. He was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Philadelphia where his father was bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Tanner trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Known for his realistic style, some identify Tanner as the first African American artist to achieve international acclaim. He spent most of his life and career in Paris. While not uncommon for artists of that time period, Tanner wrote that in France he was known as “an American artist” but in America he was forever labeled a “Negro artist”. “I was extremely timid” Tanner wrote in his autobiography. “and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.”
In 1897, Henry Tanner traveled to Palestine. His trip was sponsored by the Philadelphia businessman, Rodman Wannamaker. According to a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, while in Palestine he asked a young Palestinian woman to pose for a drawing that would become the inspiration for his famous painting entitled “The Annunciation” now held in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dated 1898, the painting is six feet wide. Art historians point out that reproductions and photographs of Tanner’s work do not do justice to the piercing radiance of the light which represents not just the angel Gabriel but the angel’s words to Mary as well.
A year ago in Nassau’s adult education virtual classes on “The Art of Advent”, Jason Oosting dedicated one week’s session to artistic portrayals of Mary. More specially, to Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. Jason covered the many symbols often associated with and painted in the scene: a lily for purity, a book or a bible for piety, a dove for the Holy Spirit and many other symbols as well. Mary is often portrayed with a halo, her head looking down in humility, her hands folded in prayer. And, of course, there is the angel Gabriel depicted in the innumerable, often ornate way that angels strike an artist’s fancy and imagination.
Which brings us back to Tanner’s painting. For this painter known for his realistic style, the angel Gabriel appears in an abstract way. The light is not coming through a window but appears inside the room. The room itself is strikingly plain from the stone floor, to the crinkled rug, to the rumbled bedding, and to Mary’s bare feet poking out beneath her night clothes. The tapestry attached to the walls to create some privacy of a bedroom seems consistent with an ancient family home in the middle east where separate rooms were rare. With what surrounds her and how she is dressed, the young woman Mary is portrayed as one of modest means or less. Her hands are not folded in prayer but more, to use the language of Luke, her folded hands reflect a pose of pondering and perplexity. There is certainly no fear in her face and her head is not downcast at all. Rather, in what seems rather like a pose of courage, she is looking directly at the divine light and with her face questioning what Gabriel has to say.
The contrast between Tanner’s Annunciation and the plethora of other artists’ work is striking. When you take into account the context of history, culture, and the religious imagination at the time, the difference is only magnified. It is as if Tanner’s own experience of oppression, racism, and being defined as other as a rising artist of color in Philadelphia inspired his creative imagine to see Mary not as holy, or pure, or pious but as a young woman in a time and place and culture who would herself occupy the margin perhaps even in her own home. The swirling questions in Mary’s mind shown in her hands and face, questions of “how can this be” and “who am I’ had to be about much more than biology. Tanner’s portrayal of the one the angel twice labels as favored by God, the one chosen by God to carry and give birth to a child who would be great and called Son of the Most High, Tanner’s painting is a timeless affirmation of the unexpected, unsettling, disorienting choice of God. For the incarnation itself, the gift of salvation, it came to be through God calling, anointing, embracing, naming someone the world, the dominant culture, and yes, even the church of Jesus Christ, would never have picked.
Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Museum released a short video on Tanner’s “The Annunciation”. The first line of the voice over is this: “Despite the simplicity of her surroundings, this is no ordinary woman. It is the Virgin Mary.” With due respect, it seems that sort of misses the point. Henry Tanner paints Mary as less than ordinary. Which, of course, makes God’s choice all the more extraordinary. And the extraordinary part has less to do with her virginity and more to do with God’s favor. God’s favor of the poor and the oppressed and the outcast, and the shunned. For God called one of the least of these to bear God’s only Son, the Savior of the world.
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looed with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.” That’s what Mary sings in the Magnificat in Luke. Her lowliness is more than her humility, more than a reference that she is merely a human compared to God. And when she sings of God scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and bringing the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty, you and I tend to think of the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus. But the scattering, the lifting, the filling and the sending, it all starts with Mary. God picking her!
Did you notice how “The Annunciation” collapses the wonder and mystery and promise of God’s salvation while affirming where it all began? Look again at the radiance of the presence of the angel Gabriel and that abstract swath of light. The light bisects the shelf on the wall to form an image of a cross. So maybe Tanner did include a symbol here. Indeed, the look on Mary’s face: the pondering, discerning, perplexed Mary. She was pondering a lot more than biology. There may be no dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit but, but in the power of the Holy Spirit, somehow Mary sees it all, the vast stretch of the very heart and heartache of God. And it all started when God found her, picked her, favored her. And she had not just the belief, but the courage to say yes to the very call of God on her life. Mary’s courageous obedience. God’s courageous choice.
Yes, it takes courage to say yes to receiving the Christ Child. Because saying “no” when it comes to bearing God’s way never gets old, does it? It’s just so darn easy, so prevalent, so timeless for humankind to say “no” when it comes to giving birth to God’s kingdom. So easy to conclude that God isn’t at work in the world these days. So common to conclude that since angels and voices and prophets are rare these days, God must be done with us, done with this. So much safer to assume if God isn’t calling you to bear a Savior like Mary, God must not be calling at all, or if God hasn’t blessed you with an idea that can save the world why bother to try at all, or if your piety and religiosity doesn’t pin the needle, why care at all. So much more prevalent to think it just doesn’t matter, or what difference does it make, or shrug it all off with a “who am I”. A “who am I” rather than “here am I”.
It takes courage to believe that in Jesus Christ God is at work to do a new thing. That in the power of the Holy Spirit, God on high comes afresh to bring light to the world’s darkness, to bring peace amid turmoil, to help broken hearts to find joy again, to insure that love wins, and to never let death have the last word. It takes courage to believe that God still favors the poor and the oppressed and the outcast, and the shunned. It takes even more courage to embrace, share, and act on that favor of God. Courage to claim that the promise of Jesus Christ still breaks forth like a radiant light as a follower of Jesus witnesses to, lives by, acts on, responds to, delivers the endless mercy and abundant grace of God in the ordinariness of life. That sounds like Advent to me. Christ coming into the world through you! It takes courage to believe that if God picked Mary, God would pick even you.
Believing that God is calling you, and inspiring you, and encouraging you, and making a way for you. Believing that God touches hearts and opens minds and transforms lives. Believing that God touches hearts and opens minds and transforms lives in and through you. Believing that God still yearns for righteousness and justice and peace in the world. Believing that God plants seeds of righteousness and justice and peace in the world in and through you. Believing that God still calls God people one at a time to lead and to risk and to witness and to change and to shout and to serve and to so live. Believing that God still is calling you to courageous obedience.
The Christ Child scattering, lifting, filling and sending. It started with Mary and it continues with those whom Christ calls….still. Jesus Christ and his call to you and me here and now. His call to us in the world here and now. When it comes to Mary and the Annunciation, there’s a lot more to ponder than biology.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, quickly come.
This sermon references “Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner. This work of art can be found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.