To make visible,
glory; for a moment
see the mystery
of eternity in
To long for the light and
to let it sweep through
shadowed windows, waiting
hearts. To listen. To
say yes, let it be as
you say it will be.
To wait till the word breaks
in, revealing grace
upon grace upon grace.
It never grows old. Year after year, telling the stories that climax with the birth of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Through the centuries, artists have sought to capture the breathtaking truth and sheer wonder of an angel greeting a young girl and of the Son of God leaving heaven for earth.
In 1436, Jan Van Eyck, the Northern Renaissance master painter, completed one of his many famous oil paintings. The Annunciation richly proclaimed with precise details the mysteries of eternity coming into the ordinary and how the “annunciation represented the moment of transition from the old era of the Hebrew law to the new era of Christian Grace.”
Jan Van Eyck -Annunciation
As in other Annunciation paintings, Mary is wearing blue. Here, she looks like a queen in her sumptuous gown. Blue represents heaven, mystery, and royalty. Sitting near a lily, a symbol for her purity, she has been interrupted from her reading by the archangel Gabriel. Each is speaking. Latin words are painted in the air, near their mouths. Gabriel says, “Hail, full of Grace.” And Mary, looking startled and humble, responds, her words written upside down for heaven to hear, “Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord.”
The setting of this painting is a cathedral—the style of architecture familiar to the original viewers. Above Mary are three light-filled windows, representing the Trinity. From an upper left story window, seven beams of light with a dove flying towards her symbolize the Holy Spirit. Above, in the third story, is a stained-glass window of Jehovah. The life of Moses is depicted on each side of the window, showing his birth and receiving the law. Square panels on the floor, situated in the front bottom of the painting, illustrate the biblical stories of Samson slaying the Philistines, Delilah betraying Samson, and David cutting off Goliath’s head. These designs on the floor and on the upper wall are used to show how Old Testament stories prefigure the life of Jesus. Gilded cloth, rainbow-colored wings, and shimmery jewels are other specific details in the painting meant to communicate the beauty of eternity entering into the world.
More than 500 years later, John Collier, an American artist, painted a contemporary annunciation scene for the Church of Saint Gabriel in McKinney, Texas. Just as in Van Eyck’s, this square oil painting seeks to capture and reveal the mysteries of eternity. Instead of depicting Mary as a regal queen though, Collier rightly paints her as a young teenage girl home from school. Where the Northern Renaissance painting points us to the splendor of heaven entering the world, this painting reminds us how the annunciation was set in ordinary spaces, making this event more personal to its viewers, the wonder of it a little more tangible.
The light-infused painting is awash with muted earth tones. It is a not a heavily ornamented piece; it is stark when compared to many other Annunciations. Despite its simplicity, several details encourage the viewer’s eyes to rest on Mary’s young and questioning face. The archangel Gabriel, in the traditional garb of robe and wings, is bowing his brown-haired head—tilting it towards Mary—and a lily is bending slightly to the right and up to her. Mary is standing on a welcome mat, a symbol for her response. She is framed by a large front door. Her home is grand but is situated in a neighborhood with modest houses. One art historian says the size of the house is indicative to the largeness of her soul. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, sits on the corner of a neighboring roof.
John Collier has remarked that this painting takes place in the 21st century, joining in the tradition of other Annunciations. During the Renaissance, artists of religious paintings set their work in their own present-day with buildings, people, and clothes of their time period so that viewers could better identify with the characters and the story. To make her seem like us, Mr. Collier dressed Mary in the contemporary clothes of a Catholic schoolgirl. She is just a 14 year old, reading a red book and wearing untied shoelaces and a blue jumper, wondering what to do with an angel bowing in front of her. We are reminded that eternity unexpectedly came into the life of an ordinary young girl. We are reminded of a moment in time when Heaven touched earth.
Sometimes our Christmas traditions leading up to the big day seek to create glittering holiday experiences that shimmer with an etherealness like the Van Eyck painting. The birth of the Messiah-King does indeed need to be richly celebrated and the wonder within this truth acknowledged, yet for many of us the season of Advent is usually more akin to the simplicity and tangibility of the Collier painting.
For my own part, I have more often than not, taken the desire to bring meaning to this time of Advent and overcomplicated it. I have made it more about striving to create the perfect, awe and joy-inspiring activities rather than drawing out the simple wonder found in the waiting for Christmas morn. Or I have started off with good intentions—such as lighting a new candle on our Advent wreath every Sunday—only to get stuck halfway through December. Regardless of how well or not well I have kept my Advent practices, Heaven is faithful to always break into my ordinary . . . and many times through rather quotidian means.
Every year in my household, Christmas books get pulled out of their storage boxes when Thanksgiving is over. Some well-loved picture books have to be looked through as soon as they are found, even if it means disrupting holiday decorating. Scripture is read around the dinner table, as are Advent poems by Luci Shaw and Malcolm Guite. Once again, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales is savored. Songs with words like “Let all mortal flesh keep silence…” waft through the air. The days are filled with words that speak of a Love coming down at Christmas.
The first Sunday of Advent, a Christmas tree gets picked out and put in place, and before any ornaments are hung, hundreds of tiny white lights are strung in its branches. And almost every night in December, someone will be found sitting on the couch, savoring the tree’s quiet glow. Houses around town with decked out lights bring a vibrant cheer to a dark night. And singing Silent Night in a dimly-lit church sanctuary, while holding candles aglow, is a lovely reminder of the Hope that the birth of Jesus brings and the light that still shines in the darkness because of it.
It is easy to overbook the holidays and regret the busy-ness. But gathering for dinner with close family friends is a date that is most happily kept year after year. Children grow into adults and some move away, but the dinner date still stands for whomever can come. Sometimes the table is full with everyone, and sometimes there are only a few. But each year, English crackers are popped, the paper crowns are worn, and the silly jokes are told. While stories are exchanged, chicken noodle soup is savored and enjoyed. The goodness of friendship and a long-lived life together enlarges the wondrous gift of Advent.
In Philippians 2, Paul tells the Church that Christ emptied himself to enter into the manger and embrace the Cross. From that great fullness we who are empty yet earnestly seek after him are being filled with this grace day by day. As it was for Mary, this grace comes to us in ordinary moments, unexpected and overwhelming, with book in hand and our shoes untied. In these moments, we, too, come face to face with this wonder and must simply respond, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
And, it never grows old.
 Leslie Bustard, “To Make Visible” 2020
 Collection Highlights, Jan Van Eyck, The Annunciation; nga.gov
Leslie Anne Bustard takes great joy in loving people and places, whether at church, around her kitchen table, in a classroom, or traveling around. She delights in words, and marvels at the beauty found in the details of ordinary life. Reading, writing, teaching literature, baking, producing high school theater, and museum-ing are some of Leslie’s favorite things. Leslie is the host of The Square Halo, a podcast for Square Halo Books and is developing a book titled Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to the Best Children’s Books. She and her husband Ned have been married for 30 years and live in a century-old row house in Lancaster City, where they raised their three daughters.
A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship
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