"... they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland….But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city."
I first saw this image in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. I was there on a personal pilgrimage to see another work of art in a Dominican Church nearby. I discovered this painting during my cultural afternoon walking the famous gallery. I am not an expert on art or art history, but I wanted to soak up as much of Florence as I could.
I remember the sun shining into the gallery that afternoon and it struck the painting right about the spot where the Holy Spirit hovers over the image of Our Lady. I stood and stared, and examined the light fixtures nearby, but I was never sure if that luminous feeling I got from the painting was the sunlight shining on it, or the artist's expert hand in painting it. I just recall being transfixed.
I was also fascinated by the title: The Incarnation of Jesus. My first reaction in looking at the painting was to recall the Annunciation. Just barely visible in the upper left corner is the scene with Mary and the Angel Gabriel. Opposite you can see Mary being led on the donkey by Joseph. You can also identify the Adoration of the Magi, and the angel's announcement to the shepherds. In the center of course is a very pregnant Blessed Mother with the Dove, recalling the Holy Spirit, hovering above her. And around her are saints, including St. Catherine, St. Peter and John the Evangelist. I also noticed the book on the floor and wondered if it was meant to recall the moment that the Angel Gabriel interrupted her prayer (Mary is often depicted as reading the Scriptures when the Angel appears).
Then, I thought about the fact that as she said "Be it done unto me" she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and the most incredible event in the history of mankind took place silently, invisibly, in her womb. The Incarnation. I had never seen, that I could recall, an artist attempt to depict the moment of The Incarnation.
I have been mesmerized by this picture ever since. Of course copies can never recreate exactly that experience of seeing it in person in that famous gallery.
I have since seen the image titled "The Immaculate Conception with Saints" which I thought was a very unfortunate title since it perpetuates that myth that the Immaculate Conception refers to Jesus being conceived in the womb of Mary, rather than Mary's sinless conception in the womb of Saint Anne. It is possible that this name is meant to refer to Mary under her title as "The Immaculate Conception", but, since this was painted some 400 years before the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was declared I think it does not do the artist's intent justice. I will always call it The Incarnation.
I have a framed print of this image in my kitchen, next to my Kitchen Madonna. The picture came from a calendar I found a few years back (and it had the unfortunate title under it, not to mention having the sides chopped off to fit into the page it was on...if ever I find a good print of it I will buy it!). I will place it on our table today as we unpack the great mysteries contained in today's feast.
This morning at Mass I was having one of my usual whispered theological discussions with six year old A who wanted to know how God created fire. I was telling her that God creates by His Word, that He says "Let there be.." and then it is. I listed some of the "Let there be"s from the creation story and I ended by saying "And then one day He said 'Let there be Annabellle' and you began to grow in my belly". She smiled at this and it seemed to end the discussion. But, I kept thinking...
Today we celebrate the "Let There Be" that changed the world: The Incarnation. We also recall Mary's response, speaking for all mankind: "Let it be done unto me". Each of us has been created by a "Let There Be" and we each must make our own response: "Let it be done unto me". The Word is spoken and we must respond.