A Theology of Annunciation–or, on asking questions of God

“The Annunciation,” George Hitchcock, 1887, The Art Institute of Chicago

There’s this:

Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their times, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur [Luke 1:18-20].

But then there’s this:

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [Luke 1:34].

Prior to Mary’s question Gabriel hails her as “favored one”—and he doesn’t change his tone after her inquirey. How can we account for Gabriel’s contrasting reactions to—what appear to be—two very similar questions about two very unexpected pregnancies? In the original Greek we can observe a difference (certainly accounted for the this translation) between Zechariah’s desire for a means by which—or authority through whom—he might come to accept these words, and Mary’s question, “How will this be accomplished in me?” Gabriel’s answers themselves give insight into the nature of the questions. To Zechariah, he defends his authority to so speak, to Mary he offers an explanation of how God was to accomplish this act.

“The Annunciation,” John Collier, 2000, St. Gabriel Catholic Church, McKinney, Texas

I’d like to interpret these contrasting questions as a narrative lens through which to view Anselm’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.”

Zechariah’s question is one of faith. He struggles to receive the message and doubts its veracity in light of all he knows (or thinks he knows). Zechariah is not asking to understand how God will effect this conception, he is not looking to make sense of what it is that is being revealed to him, but instead questions the message itself. (And let us not be to quick to pass judgment on him, as few among us would be able to, in fact, receive the news of such a miraculous conception without some doubt.)

As Mary’s “let it be done to me” can serve as a symbol of the life of faith, so her “How can this be?” can invite us to a deeper appreciation for the role of theology. Mary’s question stands upon faith in God and trust in Gabriel’s words. Rather than an inquiry into further evidence by which she might be certain of this revelation, hers is a question regarding its intelligibility. That she will be pregnant is not in question; she asks Gabriel how she might come to understand what it is she believes. Mary’s faith here is not a cognitive belief in the existence of God, but is a foundational act of trust. Such faith, described by Joseph Ratzinger as “as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God,” is not something that takes over only after all rational explanation is exhausted, but is the very ground of reason and intelligibility… it is a trust in the promise of God.

To the degree that I may make such an interpretation, I offer two thoughts for further consideration.

First, we have in Mary a glimpse into what we can hope for in our theological endeavors. We do not, therefore, seek an epistemological certainty by which we can demonstrate, through measurable empirical evidence, the reality of the doctrines of faith. Instead, theological understanding (if it arrives at all) follows faith as it arises from a relationship with the one upon whose promise we stand. The inability of theology to be self-grounding, to empirically demonstrate its first principles, does not therefore threaten its efficacy, but instead reveals its true nature as secondary to a relationship in faith. The ground upon which I stand is not mine. That’s what theology’s insufficiency teaches. We are always already playing catch-up, always arriving late to a relationship that has already begun. Thus our inability to provide evidence and the insufficiency of our knowledge help us give reason for hope in theology. If ancient Greek theater grew from a tragic interpretation of the insufficiency of our knowledge (we cannot know the truth about ourselves, and thus are cursed to suffer, or kill our fathers and sleep with our mothers as the case may be), Christian hope sees that insufficiency as an opening to deepening relationship with God and with those 6 billion or so images of God running around the planet. To stand upon a promise is to see our own dependency (physical, certainly, but also dependency of the very meaning of our lives) as, itself, a gift.

Second, if our faith is not a thing to be “set on the table” and dissected, but is a relationship upon which we stand, then, like with any relationship, we can come to understand what it is only as it forms and transforms our lives. Mary receives God’s revelation within her womb, she receives it as it changes her body, and ultimately as it changes her life. The subject of our theological study comes to us only as it changes us—it arrives in our faithful response. “God speaks in the response of the one who listens,” Robyn Horner observes, “even though this means that the word is fragile.” Turning to human fragility for a glimpse at God’s promise, theology is an act of hope. We hope that we might come to understand God’s revelation through our transforming reception of it—to understand what is offered through marking what it does. We hope that we might come to understand who is offered to us, who is promised us, through the transformation that God’s gift effects within the activity of our love born of the fragility of our flesh.

Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia