Mary and the Annunciation as a Model for Scripture Study

At the opening of BYU’s 2019 Reconciling Evolution workshop—which focuses on biology pedagogy with religious students— Associate Academic Vice-President John Rosenberg represented the University in welcoming the dozens of participants to BYU. He spoke on the pursuit of knowledge, using medieval depictions of Mary, Gabriel, and the Annunciation. I have adapted from my notes for this post, by permission.

Da Vinci, from Wikimedia Commons


Medieval art frequently portrays Mary as in the act of reading scripture when Gabriel appears to her. (See “Mary Had a Little Book.”) It is the nature of art to present idealized depictions; Mary is a prayerful and pious student of God’s word, modeling that virtue for medieval folks who, in all likelihood, could not read.Of course, the likelihood that a 13-yr-old Jewish peasant girl could read is quite low; that she had her own copy of scripture even less so, and the likelihood that it was a codex (or “book”) and not a scroll? Virtually impossible.

But art isn’t necessarily trying to be a photographic representation of reality, and we know this from our own art around the translation of the Book of Mormon. (See the bottom of this post, and this new book.)

Several aspects of the annunciation to Mary model aspects of how we should approach scripture study.

  1. Conturbatio– When Gabriel appears and opens with, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Mary is “greatly troubled” or “greatly perplexed” (Luke 1:28-9). There is perplexity, puzzlement, alarm even. I’ve always found it a little amusing that one of the first things angels tend to say is “don’t be afraid!” and that’s the case here (Luke 1:30).
  2. Cogitatio – Mary reflects on “what what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29) She wonders, reflects, ponders internally. There is mental effort over time. 
  3. Interrogatio – Mary asks a question, “how is this so?” (Luke 1:34) There is inquiry, curiosity, asking questions, trying to make sense of things, and I would say, pursuit of knowledge through all available venues, intellectual AND spiritual. Asking questions is a key component in scripture study and learning.

    Sometimes, Mary just has a book in her hand. Fra Angelica, Wikiart

  4.  Humiliatio – “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38) Submission, intellectual humility. Once at this stage we may remain unsatisfied, disquiet. Sometimes sufficient knowledge is not available through any venue, not enough information, or not good enough information. Sometimes the knowledge is complete and we wish it weren’t, because it’s an uncomfortable truth. Regardless, if we wish to remain disciples, there is a point where we must recognize that progression is a process, not an event, and all we can really do is recognize that we are God’s servants, and His will—not ours— be done, and start over again. We make use of the knowledge we have while recognizing its limits and continuing the pursuit for more through all venues.

Ideally, we are in constant iterative repetition of these stages; we take note of something, reflect, inquire, recognize our limitations on God, and repeat.

Merry Christmas

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