Friday, December 16, 2011

Annunciation and Mythos

by Mariann Burke
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, “Rejoice, so highly favored! The Lord is with you.” She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, “Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favor. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.” (Luke:1:26-38)
I had read this passage many times but it was soon to take on richer meaning.

Since we know nothing of Jesus’ conception and birth, legend and myth “fill in.” The word ‘myth’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘mythos’ meaning ‘word.’ Both ‘logos’ and ‘mythos’ mean ‘word.’ While ‘logos’ refers to rational thinking, ‘mythos’ describes poetic or intuitive thinking. “Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are ‘mythos.’ Biblical historical facts of his life are ‘logos.’ Both are true.”(1) Myths or mythos express truth closer to life’s meaning than facts. Myths resonate in the soul. For example, stories about the quest for the Grail resonate with all “searchers.” We long to experience the Holy, the numinous. The Annunciation, the birth in the stable, the shepherds’ adoration, and the journey to Egypt, all of these give valuable insights into our personal spiritual journey. And the artists who have painted these scenes have provided us with “windows” into depths unknown perhaps even to them.

Some of these “windows” would eventually open for me into other images of Mary, as Virgin Mother, Black Madonna, and Wisdom Sophia. But, at that moment down in my basement study, I was captivated only by the Annunciation. I longed to see other artists’ versions of the scene. In Milan, Arezzo or Florence, I sat in churches just looking at sculptures and frescoes. In museums, I marveled at the number of artists who had painted the scene with such depth, delicacy and power. Now these images of Mary, masterpieces from another age, stirred something vital within me. Writing these pages helped awaken me to their personal and symbolic meaning.

Over many years of paying attention to images from my unconscious in dreams and in artistic works, I was beginning to “see” a connection between the image and myself. I had known that through the history of Christianity there have been two ways of interpreting images or symbols: the historical and the poetic or imaginative. I had been exposed to the historical or literal. Now I began to realize that the two are not mutually exclusive. Early Christians honored both approaches but the historical and literal gradually took precedence. In this view the Annunciation is something that happened in the past. In the poetic or mythic approach, we are not so much viewing an image as experiencing it. My personal experience and my study of Jung would open me to see the Annunciation not as history, but as something happening now.(2) Taken in this way, the image reflects something within me. Like a dream, the image is happening within.

Certainly this is not new, for mystics of every religious tradition are “seers.” And the early Christian Gnostics valued the inner knowledge of God, but they were regarded as heretics. The thirteenth century Dominican Meister Eckhart suffered a similar fate for expressing his beliefs that God and the soul are somehow united. One of Eckhart’s favorite sayings found in his sermons is that the Divine Birth is always happening. If it does not happen within our soul, of what value is it? This insight we find echoed in the writings of Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth century mystic, speaking of the Annunciation:
If by God’s Holy Ghost thou art beguiled,
There will be born in thee the Eternal Child.
If it’s like Mary, virginal and pure
Then God will impregnate your soul for sure.
God make me pregnant, and his Spirit shadow me,
That God may rise up in my soul and shatter me.
What good does Gabriel’s ‘Ave, Mary’ do
Unless he give me that same greeting too?(3)

1. Seminar notes by Dr. Richard Naegle, Guild for Psychological Studies, San Francisco, 1995. In St. John’s Gospel “Logos” refers to the eternal existence of the Word. See also Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, p. 31.
2. Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image, p. 58.
3. C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW, Vol. 14, p. 319.

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