In spirituality as in much else I guess we all have our conceptual and devotional comfort zones. As in most other areas of life, a comfort zone is a good place to be, for a wee while. But living there long term does little to set free our imagination, stimulate intellectual curiosity, develop emotional stamina, sustain mental and physical health, or change much else about us so that we might want to be more than we presently are content with being.
Being a man, may be a biological accident, but it's also an inevitable part of my human identity, a partial and incomplete way of looking at the world, and therefore a limitation of horizon and persepctive that I need to allow for - being a man, I can only guess at what it was like to be a young woman, visited by an angel, who announces my future, and links it to the future of the whole creation. The Annunciation is one of the most stunning moments in the history of human religious experience, an event with comic and cosmic significance; comic, because it begins a drama that will resolve in an unimaginable triumph of love, life and goodness; and cosmic because the drama is the drama of the world's salvation and the redemption of all Creation. The great artists of the Renaissance saw this with instant clarity and portrayed it with magnificent anachronism, extravagant symbol, and theological sensitivity.
Now as a 21st Century man, I encounter such art and realise I'm out of my depth, summoned by a beauty beyond me, addressed by strangeness, compelled to read but uncertain of the language, and therefore needing a grammar of aesthetics and a dictionary of medieval religious concepts and affections, to help me unlock the syntax of images that say more than words. So a painting of the Annunciation like that of Vittore Carpaccio above, invites me to be perplexed, impatient, and conceptually disempowered - that is, it beckons me across the thresholds of my comfort zone. And only if I have the courage to go, will I discover through contemplative patience, and through intellectual welcome of new and different ways of knowing, yet one other way of theological encounter, spiritual openness and personal surrender - which is prayer and a deepening love of God.
And let's face it. Devotion to the Triune God whose life of eternal self-giving is ever interwoven in mutual love, and is inexhaustibly expressed in infinite goodness, and overflows in endlessly creative purposes, reaching out to embrace the Creation called into being by that same self-expending love, requires of us more than the complacency, contentment and constraints of our personal devotional comfort zones.And so to Carpaccio's painting, and Advent. Because whatever else Advent does, it forces upon us a reconceptualising of what God is about, and what our lives are about. The Annunciation is an event that changes forever and a day, the life of a young woman. Theologically, it reasserts the limitless paramaters of grace, it redefines the nature of redeeming love, it reconfigures the hopes of a nation, a world and all humanity, all of which hangs on the yes of a young woman. That is what the painting is about. Look at it in that light - that crisis moment that awaits the words, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word".