On American Graffiti, hope and the Annunciation
When I was a child growing up in America in the 1970s there was a romanticism about the 1950s and early 60s that was all over popular culture. From Francis Ford Coppola's American Graffiti in cinemas in 1973 to Happy Days on our television screens beginning in 1974, and 1978's Grease (which would be the highest grossing film of that year) we couldn't seem to get enough of wholesome, clean cut boys in lettermen's jackets, of fresh-faces girls in poodle skirts, of tough boy greasers in leather jackets, and of bad girls in tight skirts and sweaters.
The Annunciation by John Collier (2000)
We know, of course, that all that glitters is not gold, and now we can see just how myopic this rose-coloured view of America was (I actually should probably write "white-coloured" view, as I highly doubt the period would be perceived in the same way by the African American and Latino communities, just to name two). But after the turmoil of the 1960s and early 70s, after the horrific disaster of the Vietnam War, it was nice to hearken back to a simpler time, to allow ourselves to forget what we had become by focusing on what we once were.
And I think what we once were (again, not all of us in the same way - I can't stress this enough) was a people who were captivated by hope. Hope that we could somehow make the world a better place, hope in the mythical-yet-somehow-real American Dream which was such an important part of our national identity. Those toothy, bright-eyed kids on our TV and cinema screens were bursting with hope and it was lovely - it is lovely - to get lost in that every now and again, especially when we live in a world in which so much seems, well, hopeless. Those kids became like icons; sitting in cinemas and on sofas we could watch them and believe (even if only for a couple of hours) that those two-dimensional images were gateways to something more, something alive, something good, maybe even something holy.
It is this element of hope that always inspires me when I both read the story of the Annunciation and get lost in its artistic depictions. In one sense it is a story of a kind that is found in so many different religions, the story of what happens when human beings mingle with the Divine. But what makes the Annunciation so different is that this connection between the human and divine didn't happen like myths of old with the divine forcing itself upon humanity, but rather through the cooperation of a girl; through her yes this glorious Incarnation came to pass, and hope flowered like a wayward lily improbably trumpeting its presence to a hopeless world. That girl then became an icon of hope itself as the Divine Child grew within her, and as the Holy Spirit inspired her song of hope: hope for a world in which the soul of a young girl can magnify the Lord, in which her whole spirit could rejoice in God her Saviour, in which every generation could receive mercy, in which the proud could be scattered in their own conceit, the mighty could tumble from their thrones, the lowly could be lifted up, and the hungry could fed whilst the uncaring rich were sent away empty. If at times we would like to forget what our world has become by focusing on what it once was, in the Annunciation we are presented with an icon of the hope of what our world could be, and it points our gaze towards the God who brought it all to play through the yes of that girl, who herself became a gateway to something more, something alive, something good, and most certainly something holy.
The announcement has been made and heard. The world is with child. (Frederick Buechner)