Wrestling with Advent (Luke 1:29)

by Janet Karsten Lawson

Janet Karsten Larson teaches English at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and is an Editor-at-Large of the Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 13, 1989, p. 1166. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Prodded by Jean-Luc Godard’s provocative film Hail Mary, Janet Karsten Larson meditates on the annunciation to Mary and the theme of embodiment.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be [Luke 1:291.

Many representations of the annunciation in painting, literature and film, while emphasizing Mary’s faithfulness, have lingered over the fear and questioning hinted at in Luke. In what depths of Mary’s heart did she ponder the angel’s words? Did she wrestle with the meaning of this Advent, like the matriarchs of old who struggled to believe that "with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37; cf. Gen. 18:14) ? Skeptical Sara laughs, equivocates with the messenger she fears but does not quite recognize is divine. Rebekah’s wrestling begins in conception and continues in her domestic manipulations despite the oracle’s clear promise that Jacob will prevail over Esau. Rachel’s "mighty wrestlings" in a birth contest with Leah produce 12 leaders but end with her death as the "child of her sorrow is brought forth. Hannah’s song, inspiring Mary’s Magnificat, is a joyful response to the redemptive miracle of Samuel’s birth. Did Mary also experience the absence that precedes Advent, as Hannah did, weeping her prayers to God? In the other Gospels it is not clear that Mary understood what had been accomplished through her until later in the story. Did she fully comprehend her oracle? Did she, like Rebekah’s son, wrestle with the angel?

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1984 film Je Vous Salue Marie (Hail Mary) provocatively presents these questions. Though the pope has condemned the film and conservative Roman Catholic groups still picket when it is shown, it has inspired contemplative silence from many viewers. A moving, contemporary version of the incarnation, enlivened by wit and charm appropriate for a divine comedy about children, Hail Mary testifies to a mystery. Godard’s very obscurities convey the way people often apprehend God’s presence. From an avant-garde filmmaker who avoids a consistent viewpoint, we can hardly expect orthodoxy. Viewers of the available video can make up their own minds about Godard’s achievement; for me, Hail Mary prompted meditations that we do not usually consider at Advent.

Hail Mary takes place at a crossroads of traffic, choices and journeys: a garage (called "Self Gas") where a teenaged daughter helps out at the pumps. At high school, this tall young woman with the fresh, serious face plays on the girls’ basketball team, but from the beginning she is marked as alone of all her sex. Late one night her taxi-driver boyfriend pulls up to the pumps with a strange twosome just arrived from the airport: a rather seedy, stern young man with a cherub-cheeked girl who feeds him his lines from a big book. "This is the place." In the chiaroscuro of neon-lit darkness, the virgin receives her impossible annunciation across a taxi hood, arrested amid the confusion of strange arrivals and ordinary business. Gabriel also summons her to an Abramic journey -- "I know where you’re going and you will too"; the cherub charges her, "Be pure, be rough. Follow thy Way!" Mary holds firm against Joseph’s siege of questions and patiently awaits the event, iconographically positioned in windows and doorways flooded with light, reading books. Only as this advent unfolds does she begin to struggle with the meaning of this "excess of ingress," the awe-filled coming of the Lord.

In the film’s most remarkable scenes we witness Mary’s long night-wrestling with her condition and her choice. In her narrow rumpled bed again and again she flails against the white sheets that rush upon her with the sound of angels’ wings, while the sharp songs of predatory night birds outside her window attack the ear, then change into sweeter, holier notes as dawn arrives. The composition of these scenes recalls many annunciation paintings. The violent struggle depicted also suggests a hieros gamos, a sacred mating between a god and a mortal. The shadows in these encounters and other patches of darkness Godard lets fall in the film recall Gabriel’s prophecy: "the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee" (Luke 1:34-5) Although there have been some efforts to read this imagery sexually, most biblical scholars reject such implications. Godard has a long tradition of erotic spirituality in Christian mysticism to draw upon, but the extraordinary collage of texts that inform the soliloquies of Godard’s Mary recalls other traditions as well, especially those of the psalmist’s laments, Job’s accusations, Jacob’s encounter with the night messenger and Jesus passional agony. Mary enters her valley of the shadow with a medley of outcries: God is "a vampire" who "profited from my pain"; "a creep, a coward who won’t fight"; one who "suffers to see [her] suffer." Over a scene of a tempest beating across a green field we hear Mary’s words of pure, rough defiance: "The Lucifer will die. We’ll see who’s weariest, him or me." Is it friend or foe? Godard’s Mary struggles to discern spirits, resists disappearing into her suffering, and, as her body becomes the site of redemptive warfare, discovers that her loss and gain are one.

Early in the film, childlike, she asks the family doctor, "Does the soul have a body?" His conventional answer suddenly seems more naïve: mais non, it’s bodies that have souls. This exchange brings out that Mary suffers also because she has been drawn into a reversal of nature: a soul is getting embodied. At moments the film seems to be exposing the cruelty of a tradition that enshrines the sacrifice of female sexuality as the price of the incarnation. But more powerful are the film’s visual embodiments of the idea that "the Spirit acts upon the body" to irradiate it, making it "more beautiful than it is"; for, Mary asks, "what is flesh alone?" The Spirit finds a home in her luminous flesh and Mary salutes the light that "suddenly. . . shone in my heart" -- bringing to mind Jesus’ meditation on "the light of the body" in Luke 11:33-36. In his spiritual darkness, Joseph believes it is the body that acts upon the spirit -- the materialism of the "average Joe."

Mary’s fugue-like dialogues with herself remind us that Advent can arrive as intimate demand, confront us by rude surprise, and, despite our fierce or wily resistance, "wrest from [us] that which [we] do not give." Coming in this way, Advent is labor through till dawn, and its spirit may be difficult to discern. Is acceptance nothing more than capitulation to a superior power, like Job’s whirlwind God? "I am not sad, only resigned," Mary says, as a shadow falls. And then: "Why must one speak of resignation to God’s will? Is one resigned to be loved?" Advent may be greeted with ecstasy, or it may come with gentler grace after we have done with wrestling. In whatever way, it is through our material conditions, and through the flesh that we imagine to be an impermeable boundary of self, the solid object of knowledge and possession, or an alien substance, that Advent comes. Advent comes to fill unexpected spaces and times of our lives with Spirit, challenging our forgetful materialisms and rationalist designs, scandalizing all disembodied religiosity and even the best-meant liberal humanism.

Urging us to "embrace the scandal of incarnation more radically," James B. Nelson has written: "If we do not know the gospel in our bodies, we may not know the gospel. When we find bodily life an embarrassment to so-called high-minded spiritualized religion, we lose our capacity for passionate caring and justice. We lose the sense of the holiness of the bodies of starving children and the bodies of women and men tom by violence and torture." In this respect, Hail Mary falters. In focusing only on the virgin mother, Hail Mary does not invite us to ponder the ministry of justice and reconciliation so boldly envisioned in the Magnificat. Reminding us that the soul has a body politic as well as embodiment in precious individuals, this sublime prophetic song judges all oppressive social orders and announces their end with the coming of the Lord. As Mary sings, prophecy is already being fulfilled in this world, lifting up the humble singer, pulling faithful hearers toward the future God wills for the shalom of all creatures, and energizing them to bring home to others the real presence of the indwelling God. Advent bears good tidings that this is the One who comes as body and blood, bread and wine, to hungry mouths at the Eucharist feast, and who comes back to us through compassionate acts of filling the hungry with good things. This Christ comes to and through broken flesh, the bypassed heart, the feeble knees up six flights of stairs, the ears that hear and the eyes that read lips, the healing voice, the arms embracing, the face of rival or friend.

In the between-times of Advent, the unresolved fugal dialogues will go on. More precisely, their felt irresolution may be the active sign of a God who continues to encounter us. The Magnificat’s Lord of love and justice is in personal terms the One who "fights with us" in both senses of the phrase, our best friend and most faithful antagonist at once. A poem of Rilke’s about this paradox recalls "the Angel who appeared / to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: / when the wrestlers’ sinews / grew long like metal strings, / he felt them under his fingers / like chords of deep music." "Whoever was beaten by this Angel," Rilke continues, ". . . went away proud and strengthened / and great from that harsh hand. . ." To distinguish this gracious empowering defeat from others less noble or merely destructive is a continuing challenge of discernment. Perhaps Mary best knew this divine wrestling partner, who called forth her chords of deep music and made her perfect submission proud and strong. Perhaps also (I like to imagine, since we don’t know) , the being Jacob encountered was this very avant-garde Lady, far ahead of her appointed biblical time, who initiated the wily challenger into new love/knowledge beyond the meaning of his macho name before she consented to let him go. In my vision it is Our Lady the Wrestler who lets him go limping into the crossroads of the world, where for the first time he sees in the face of his brother, running to embrace him, the countenance of God. What manner of greeting is this unexpected reconciliation? "Let the soul be the body." Let it be, according to thy word.