“Do Not Be Afraid, for Nothing is Impossible with God” by Deborah Sokolove

December 24, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Advent

slide 1: Unknown (Novgorod school), Annunciation, 12th century, tempera on panel Russian

Just a few days ago the winter solstice brought us the shortest day and longest night of the year. This morning, our part of the world has just begun to tilt towards the sun. We have gained one more minute of daylight since the solstice.

slide 2: Simone Martini, The Angel and the Annunciation, 1333, tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Tonight we will celebrate the coming of Christ into the world, 2000 years ago as a helpless infant, and at the end of time when God will dwell among us again. In that new heaven and new earth, we are told, God will wipe away every tear; and death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. But right now it is still Advent, the time of waiting.

slide 3: Merode Altarpiece Robert Campin and workshop, 1427, Oil on oak panel Central panel 64 x 63 cm each wing 65 x 27cm

Waiting is hard. This has been a hard year for those of us who care about peace and justice in this here-and-now world. And even though it will be Christmas, when we wake up on Monday morning, nothing in this here-and-now world will have changed. The earth will still be trapping greenhouse gases, the glaciers will still be shrinking, the coastal waters rising. The Dreamers and their families will still be in danger of being deported. The safety net for poor people will continue to be shredded. People in positions of power will still act as though no one else matters. And people’s lives will continue to be shattered by violence, by famine, by drought and storm and earthquake and flood. And yet, the angel says, Do not be afraid.

slide 4: Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c. 1450, fresco, Museo di San Marco, top of dormitory stairs, Florence, Italy

In the midst of all this, we hear the angel’s impossible assurance that all is well. Do not be afraid, the angel tells Mary, for nothing is impossible with God.

slide 5: Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, c. 1485 Tempera and gold on wood Florence (now at Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

Angels – literally “messengers” – are pretty ambiguous creatures in the bible. Sometimes they are experienced as God’s own self, sometimes as otherworldly beings with many eyes and wings, sometimes looking just as human as any one of us. Always, angels bring perplexing news — names will be changed; battles will be won or lost; childless old women and young virgins who have never known a man will have babies; a king will be born in a stable; there will be peace on earth, good will to all. Angels fly through the air, blow trumpets, and attend the heavenly throne. They visit humans to challenge and to comfort. And whatever the rest of their message, they almost always say, “Do not be afraid.”

slide 6: Lorenzo Lotto, Annunciation, c. 1527. Oil on canvas. Pinacoteca Comunale, Recanati (Macerata), Italy

In the Gospel according to Matthew, the angel comes to Joseph, saying “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” In Luke’s telling, from which most of our stories about the birth of Jesus come, the angel comes to Zachariah, saying “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” Later, the angel comes to Mary and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Nine months later, an angel of the Lord stood before some terrified shepherds and said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy”.

Do not be afraid, the angels says to all those people so long ago.

slide 7: Girolamo da Santacroce The Annunciation, c.1540, Italy, oil on panel, Minneapolis Institute of Art

 Last week, Glen and I were in Los Angeles to attend the memorial service for his mother. On Sunday we went to church with his dad, where the preacher talked about the grey, colorless, ashy places of our lives. He said that the role of the church is to produce beautiful things as a sign of hope. Too often, he lamented, the church is known for activities that make the world uglier. Beauty, he said, helps the world to imagine what the beautiful Realm of God looks like.

slide 8: Alphonso, South Indian, b 1940 in Takenaka & O’Grady, The Bible Through Asian Eyes (Auckland, NZ: Pace Publishing, 1991) 75.

As many of you know, I find the word “beauty” problematic, especially when it is applied to art. I want art to be true, not beautiful. Still, I think that Pastor Jason has a point. By honoring the honest expression of anguish and lament—for the tears that Marjory so often reminds us are signs of the holy—we can allow something new and beautiful to rise up out of the ashes. We can become a vision of hope for a world that is in constant turmoil and pain.

slide 9: He Qi, Chinese, contemporary. in Look Toward the Heavens: The Art of He Qi (New Haven CT: Overseas Ministry Study Center 2006), 60-61

In the poem that we call the Magnificat, Mary offers such a fearless vision. In greeting her cousin Elizabeth, she thanks God that “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Recounting God’s promise to repair what is broken, she sees it as already accomplished: God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly … filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

slide 10: Woelfel, Nigeria, Contemporary. in O’Grady et. al, Christ for All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art (Aukland NZ: Pace Publishing 2001) 36

I’ve been reading a book called The Work of Art: Rethinking the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, by New Zealand poet and anthropologist Michael Jackson, currently distinguished professor of world religions at Harvard Divinity School. Jackson writes about art as a process, as an analogue of religion, as a way of dealing with the terrible agony of being alive in abroken world. One of the tasks of both art and religion, he says, is “to affirm that, even when disoriented and in despair, there is light in the darkness, meaning in the void, peace in the feud, love in enmity, new life in the face of loss.” [p 126]

slide 11: Miriam Guevara, Nicaragua, contemporary in Scharper & Scharper, eds., The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books 1984), 7

I’ve been invited to participate in a group show next summer with the theme “Be Not Afraid.” Not having any idea of how any of my existing work might fit that theme, I told the organizer that I will make something new. Now, I’ve begun to think about using mostly grays and blacks, the colors of ashes, instead of (or maybe along with) the brilliant colors that I have been using for so long.

And I am afraid. Afraid of the times we live in. Afraid of starting new work. Afraid that I cannot finish the work that I have started.

slide 12: Patty Wickman, Overshadowed, 2001 oil on canvas 78 x104″

And yet, to start something new is to live in hope, to believe in God’s promise that, despite the dispiriting evidence, life is worth living. The work we are called to do – in this season and in every season – is worth doing.

Do not be afraid, the angel says to me.

slide 13: James Janknegt, Joyful Mystery #1: Annunciation 30X30 inches 2007 oil on canvas

It is still Advent, and angels still might appear to bring us good news. When they do, let us not be afraid, for everything is possible with God.

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