Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist for the Annunciation of Our Lord
25 March 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The Annunciation of Our Lord
A recent television series cast for me fresh light on the Gospel birth narratives which of course include the event we celebrate today, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the young Virgin Mary of God’s plan that she should be the Mother of God’s Son. Today we have heard again St Luke’s familiar account of that precious moment when Mary, ‘full of grace’ responds, ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ God’s invitation; Mary’s response: but it would not be easy.
St Matthew in his Gospel tells of Joseph’s dream. In his dream, the angel tells him not to mind that Mary, who is engaged to him, is expecting the child of another. He should not abandon her, but marry her and look after her child. The Gospel tells us nothing of his emotions but that he obeys the dream and takes Mary as his wife. He cherishes Mary and the new-born Jesus and takes them for safety to Egypt. He only brings them back to Nazareth when he knows that King Herod is dead and his threats powerless.
St Luke in his Gospel tells of our Lady Mary with St Joseph again, when Jesus is twelve years old and has been left behind in Jerusalem with the doctors of the law, listening to them and asking questions. We hear little or nothing more of the life of St Joseph, though we are to see our Lady in the Gospels and Acts several more times, especially at the Crucifixion and at Pentecost. However familiar these birth narratives are, they leave questions unanswered.
In the weeks before last Christmas the BBC showed a series of four half-hour plays about the Christmas story. The plays were the work of one of the BBC’s most experienced script-writers, Tony Jordan. He has said that he began his work knowing the biblical account well through having heard it at countless carol services and attended his children’s nativity plays but he had an open mind as to whether the stories were true historically.
Over many months of preparation for the writing, he discussed the Gospel accounts with people of faith and with historians and scientists. He was told that the Gospels could not be literal truth. He was told they were written for theological purposes and stitched together a narrative designed to fulfil particular Old Testament prophecies. The more he thought about it, however, and the more he remembered how the stories had been passed down by word of mouth for decades before being recorded in writing, the more he came to the conclusion that they must be and could be literally true.
But that still left him with the problem of understanding the emotions and reactions of the key characters, a necessary step in order to dramatise the accounts effectively. How did Mary feel at the annunciation? How did Joseph really react to the realisation that his betrothed was pregnant? Did he believe his dream?
In his dramatisation of the story Tony Jordan emphasises Mary’s amazement and terror after the Annunciation. Would anyone believe her that the child she was bearing was not that of another man? Would her parents believe her? The community? Her friends? Would Joseph, could he possibly, accept that what she said was true? Could she indeed bring herself to say it: ‘An angel visited me and asked me to be the mother of God’s Son’? Mary goes through agonies of indecision as the child begins to show. She escapes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is sympathetic. But she must come home. Her community rejects her. Joseph only just bears to be with her. The word spreads. Even in Bethlehem, where they go for the census, the people have heard. She is an immoral woman, a whore; it is because of this that there is no room at the inn. Joseph only half believes his dream. Only at the last moment does he believe, when he sees the star and the shepherds and then the wise men.
These dramatic details in the BBC plays are of course conjecture. They are not in the story just as the Gospels tell it. But they do serve to bring out in a fresh way the human dilemmas, the amazing challenge, the suffering. However we see the detail, we know of course at the very least that there is nothing picture-book or glamorous about this annunciation or the birth that follows nine months later. It is not easy. It involves much suffering. Joseph suffers. Mary suffers. Jesus is born into suffering. If we follow him we must expect to suffer too. The Church has always understood this truth.
In the National Gallery of Art in Washington is a nativity scene painted in 1523 by the Venetian Lorenzo Lotto. The baby Jesus reaches up to his mother Mary, her arms folded over her breast in devotion as she kneels before him. Behind him, also kneeling, is Joseph. There are no shepherds or wise men, just the baby with Mary and Joseph. On a wall behind Joseph is a conventional crucifix. There are no animals, except for two doves high up in the stable top at the rear of the scene. Symbolically they await their moment as a sacrificial offering for the redemption of the forty-day-old Redeemer of the world. Above the baby Jesus is another symbol, a ladder. It leans up against a hay-loft. But it is not there by accident. Crucifixion scenes frequently include a ladder leaning up against a cross. There is more. Joseph holds his staff just above Jesus in an image of the cross. Beside the crib on the ground lies a bag that might contain money, perhaps thirty pieces of silver. A cup lies overturned on the ground, its contents spilled like the Redeemer’s blood.
Theologians have sometimes sought to escape this intimate connection between the Christmas story, with its humanistic promise of earthly hope and joy, and the story of Holy Week and Easter, with its heavenly promise of ultimate hope and joy through the pain of suffering and death. Particularly in the 19th century, writers focussed on the exemplary character of Jesus, gentle, meek, and mild, and on his moral teaching, and sought to downplay the suffering. It cannot be done. Nor should it be done. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and in this time of natural disaster, economic uncertainty for so many, rebellion and suppression in the Arab lands, and continuing conflict and terror in the Middle East, the appeal of a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is somewhat less attractive than the appeal of a Jesus, a Son of God, who suffers with suffering humanity and shows in his suffering the powerful, consistent, passionate love of God.
In one of the Revelations to Dame Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic, is heard Jesus saying to her, ‘most sweetly this word, “if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” He said not, “if it were needful to suffer more” but “if I could suffer more”. For even though it were not needful, if he could suffer more, he would. Herein’, says Julian, ‘I saw fullness of bliss in Christ; for this bliss would not have been full, if it could any better have been done than it was done.’
Thank God for the Annunciation to Mary. Thank God for his birth into flesh. Thank God for his suffering and dying Son. May we come to share his cross and the joy of his resurrection!