The Annunciation of Mary: Ambiguity, Perplexity and Truth

Confessing our uncertainties in the face of complex circumstances may prove finally to be a very good thing, even something of a gift. They bring us face to face with the limit where human understanding fails.
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My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.
Stay here and watch with Me.

--Matthew 26: 38

During the past dozen years or so, during what I'd like to think are my -- God-willing -- middle years, I have developed a healthy taste for ambiguity.

One of the reasons I enjoy poetry, for instance, is how a good poem pretty much insists that the reader attend to and learn to savor the swoon of ambiguity. The productive ambiguity of good poems obliges the reader to actually participate with a poem's suggestive possibilities and that he or she collaborate as a co-maker of meaning.

That is to say, a great poem -- even a pretty good one -- isn't ever done saying what it has to say, so long as successive generations of alert and energetic readers continue to pick it up.

Ambiguity in any substantial literary text, then, indicates that the significance of the telling doesn't end with a single reading, and delivers a compelling nudge to the reader that he or she assist in the telling and the re-telling, the continuing labor of meaning-making.

I also have come to think that this goes for ambiguity in general, ambiguity in life.

And it may serve as well for all flavors of uncertainty.

And for perplexity, to boot.

So, it occurs to me that perplexity is not such a bad disposition to cultivate, considering the complex circumstances of our lives. Perplexity is, at the very least, preferable to an array of clear, comprehensible, and mistaken certainties.

Confessing our uncertainties in the face of complex circumstances may prove finally to be a very good thing, even something of a gift. They bring us face to face with the limit where human understanding fails -- as it inevitably must do. Apprehending that limit serves to make a healthy dent in our pride and sense of self-sufficiency.

Moreover, our noticing that limit of knowledge -- that line across which we can never proceed -- can nudge us into suspecting how the actual, the True, is immeasurably immense, how it necessarily exceeds us.

I love how W.H. Auden begins his wonderful poem, "Archaeology":

The archaeologist's spade
delves into dwellings
vacancied long ago,

unearthing evidence
of life-ways no one
would dream of leading now --

concerning which he has not much
to say that he can prove: --
the lucky man!

Knowledge may have its purposes,
but guessing is always
more fun than knowing. ...

I have a sense that our Mr. Auden, prince among poets, also had developed a very healthy taste for ambiguity.

Whatever the Truth turns out to be, it is not a comprehensible body of knowledge, even if that Truth is made manifest and is revealed in the apprehensible Body of Christ. We do not and will not ever comprehend the Truth; rather, the Truth, presumably, comprehends us.

In an earlier post, I quoted Saint Isaac of Syria -- my patron saint, as it happens -- saying "knowledge of our weakness is the beginning of all that is good and beautiful." Recalling those words, I'm thinking that the knowledge of this particular human weakness -- the limits of our knowledge -- can bear witness to the inexhaustible enormity of God. That is, our own, felt limit gives us an efficacious glimpse, a taste of the all that is good and beautiful.

Priest and Orthodox theologian John Romanides has opened up my thinking on this matter: God's otherness. In a series of lectures, published as Patristic Theology, we find his words:

"...when we examine the entire patristic tradition, we note that the Fathers stress that idolatry begins when someone identifies expressions of concepts about God with God Himself. They make this claim because God cannot be identified with human concept. The uncreatedness of God literally cannot be expressed through concepts. Although we can attribute names to God (for example, we say that God is god, bountiful, merciful, and so forth), this practice is, strictly speaking, improper. We know that it is inappropriate because of the prophets' and the Fathers' experience of glorification or theosis. During theosis, concepts about God have to be set aside. This experience discloses the fact that no created concept corresponds to the uncreated reality of God. There is absolutely no identity or similarity between our concepts or names for God and the reality that is none other than God Himself."

It may prove to be a comforting assurance that even if we are inevitably constrained by our limitations, the God and His reality continue, extending endlessly beyond what we can make of them. In a deeply quiet, calming way, this apprehension offers something like subliminal evidence that we didn't simply make the whole story up.

I have already alluded to the rabbinic tradition of midrashim, the searching out of scripture. It is but one specific practice of our deeper tradition that has always savored the inexhaustibility of scriptural revelation. For the wise rabbis poring over their Torah scroll, perplexity is understood to be the key to subsequent revelation; for them -- as it should probably be for us -- the scriptures are understood to be capable of assisting us to an ever deeper relationship with our God. Their midrashic method has been to "search out" the difficult passages, the utterly perplexing ones, trusting that if those passages appear to trouble their assumptions, it is because their assumptions needed work. Their vision was due for revision.

Among the wealth of scriptural perplexities made available to us in Saint Paul's serial epistles, perhaps the most perplexing occurs in the first chapter of the saint's letter to the Colossian church. In verse 24, we come across a very odd observation as Saint Paul speaks of his own experiences of suffering for his brethren and for their common faith: "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church."

Had you noticed that before?

What, one cannot help but wonder, could possibly be lacking in the afflictions of Christ? What could be deficient?

This is known in the business as "a hard saying," "a dark saying," and it is not likely to settle well with those -- perhaps especially with those -- who prefer to take their scriptures neat, or very literally. It is hardly less a dark saying, as well, even for those of us who embrace a more figurative, metaphorical sense of the scriptures as the continuing "witness" to the Revelation -- the actual Revelation being Christ Himself.

While we're having recourse to a relatively old school custom of doing our theology by way of "chapter and verse" exegesis, we may as well throw into the mix a complementary observation offered by Saint Peter: "Beloved," Saint Peter writes, "do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy."

The notion that Christ's sufferings lacked anything may strike some of us as borderline heresy; the idea is at the least counterintuitive. Greater attention to the Greek word yielding the odd lacking in our English translations of Saint Paul's letter -- isterímata -- is not likely to increase our comfort. I have seen it translated, here and there, as deficiency, which strikes me as even worse, but I'm thinking that its grammatical indication of a future matter can give us a bit more of a clue. A more likely translation seems to me to be what is yet to be done.

In any case, this does not exactly solve our puzzle. One is very likely still to ask, what is yet to be done?

What is it that Saint Paul and the rest of us are expected to supply?

Could it be ourselves?

The very heart of an efficacious faith, it seems to me now, is bound up precisely in our watchfully living into this mystery of what appears to be God's continuing desire for collaboration between Himself and His creation. As Father John Romanides would teach us, the God has nothing in common with us, save Christ, the uncreated Person of the Godhead who took on our nature to accommodate our untoward circumstance.

From Adam's naming of the animals through each successive patriarch, prophet, and holy man or woman, the God has shown a predilection for working with His people, as opposed to simply working on them. The God is intent, generation after generation, on finding one or more of us to suffer the chore with Him. They may or may not always be the best specimens -- Moses, Abraham, Lot, David, etc. -- but their success is inevitably bound up with their complying with His will, and colluding with it. We find instances of this dynamic collaboration throughout our biblical texts and throughout their surrounding traditions.

During our Advent season, one chief instance that comes to mind, the gospel dialogue that accompanies the event we call the Annunciation, that most curious exchange between the Archangel Gabriel and the Theotokos, and I glimpse in that fascinating give and take the Holy Mother's intentional concurrence with the angelic messenger's announcement.

The angel reveals to her the message from on high, and she replies, "Behold the maidservant of the Lord!"

She replies, "Let it be to me according to your word."

The point is that she said yes to God's messenger. One despairs to think what would have become of us if she had said no.

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