From the Prophet Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 52:7 (NRSV) – March 25, 2014.)
It may be pedestrian of me, but I can’t stop thinking of the messenger’s feet and whether this passage of Isaiah is really very well chosen as the Old Testament lesson for Morning Prayer on the Feast of the Annunciation! Reading the rest of the lesson with its message of redemption and salvation, one can see why it is set out in the special set of Daily Office readings for this feast day, but I can’t get my mind off the feet.
I’m part of a weekly bible study group that, a couple of months ago, read through and discussed the Book of Ruth. It was news to one of our members that the term feet was used there (when Ruth uncovers Boaz’s feet on the threshing floor) as a metaphor for male genitalia; so . . . now when we encounter the word in any other context, the question “Is this metaphorical?” always pops up. I don’t believe Isaiah is being metaphorical in that way here.
What occurs to me about the passage is another question, “Do archangels even have feet?” We know that seraphim do because of Isaiah’s description in Chapter 6: “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.” (Isa. 6:2) Artistic renditions of the Annunciation seem generally to show at least one of Gabriel’s feet, but then Gabriel is generally depicted in human form which I’m not sure is all that accurate.
In my two favorite pictures of this story, those by Fra Angelico and by Sandro Botticelli, Mary does not seem very interested in the messenger’s feet (or foot). In the former, she looks absolutely distracted and doesn’t appear to be looking at the archangel at all. In the latter, apparently recoiling from the message, her gaze is downcast, but she seems to looking at her own feet rather than Gabriel’s; perhaps she is contemplating running away.
The feet of messengers also have a bit of walk-on part in the regular lessons for Tuesday in the third week of Lent. In the gospel reading from Mark, Jesus sends the Twelve out in pairs to preach his message but tells them, “If they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk. 6:11) And, yes, bible study partner, Jesus is using feet metaphorically, but not in that Book of Ruth way. Here, as in Isaiah’s prophecy, the metaphor is the message; the messenger’s feet are the foundation of the good news. They can be appreciated for their beauty or rejected and turned away.
When I think of feet, of looking at feet, of considering the appearance or beauty of feet, I remember a bit of verse by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Your Feet:
When I cannot look at your face
I look at your feet.
Your feet of arched bone,
your hard little feet.
I know that they support you,
and that your gentle weight
rises upon them.
Your waist and your breasts,
the doubled purple
of your nipples,
the sockets of your eyes
that have just flown away,
your wide fruit mouth,
your red tresses,
my little tower.
But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon the wind and upon
until they found me.
(From The Captain’s Verses, 1952, English translation 1972)
When we cannot fully appreciate the message, when it confuses us or appalls us or frightens us or overwhelms us, we can at least focus our gaze on the feet of the messenger and, perhaps, eventually lift our eyes to view the fullness of the Good News which walks upon the earth and the wind and the waters until it finds us.
So, I think, yes, the Old Testament lesson is really well chosen for this, the Feast of the Annunciation, and it doesn’t really matter whether archangels have feet. After all, it’s a metaphor.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.