Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Annunciation of Our Lord 2014
25 March 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Many of us have been disturbed by the disappearance of an aeroplane supposed to have been flying from Malaysia to China. What is most disturbing is the absence of any real news, the absence of any clear picture of what might have happened. Our sense of frustration is however nothing compared with the distress of the families of those missing. We heard not long ago the anger of the Chinese mother of one of the passengers, desperate for information, certain that someone was withholding news to which she as an anxious or grieving mother was entitled. For the time being the families of the missing, just like the owners of the plane and airline, those undertaking the search, the governments of Malaysia and China and the watching media, must live with uncertainty.
My visit to the United States of America last week, which had begun in Washington DC, and continued in Richmond and Lexington Virginia, ended in New York City, near Ground Zero, when I dedicated a plaque with the Abbey coat of arms in the Queen Elizabeth II September 11th Garden. That garden, which I had rededicated in May 2012, commemorates people from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth who lost their lives in the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001. Now, there is a permanent link between Westminster Abbey, the Commonwealth Church, and that memorial garden. The relatives of the people who died there had to live with uncertainty in many cases for a long time; many of them live still with the uncertainty of how exactly their relations died and to what degree they suffered. Was their death quick or agonisingly slow? What did they know beforehand? What comfort if any did they receive? That uncertainty remains for many of us when we think of the death of relations and friends. We live with uncertainty.
Today the Church calls to mind a decisive moment in the history of our salvation: the moment when the archangel Gabriel visited the maiden Mary with a momentous message from God. She had been chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, to be the bearer of God to the world. From her flesh would the flesh of Jesus be made; he would be both Son of God and Son of Mary, fully human through Mary his Mother and fully divine through God his Father. Without her, God would not be able to be born into human flesh, would not be able to walk on this earth, would not be able to preach, to teach and to heal, would not be able to share in our human suffering. Without her, God would not be able to die for our salvation and rise to offer us new life.
Everything hung on Mary’s readiness to accept her calling, to respond positively, to say Yes. But for Mary, what a moment that must have been. We see her hesitation. ‘Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’’ And we hear her make up her mind. ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ But she must have remained uncertain what it would mean in practice. She could not surely then have foretold the mission of the adult Jesus, or her own role alongside him in his ministry, as one of many disciples. She could not have predicted her nearness to him in his suffering, his agony and his death. She could not have seen then that she would be given by her Son as the Mother of the beloved Disciple, the Mother of the Church. She could certainly not have predicted her presence with the early Church in Jerusalem at the time of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Mary too lived with uncertainty.
For some of us, the thought that we live with uncertainty is rather alien. We who have a decent job and comfortable homes, a strong family life and plenty of friends, reasonably good health and a sensible life style – what could go wrong for us? We who have the good fortune to live in a temperate climate and in a democratic country enjoying generally incorrupt and reasonably efficient government – what could go wrong for us? In fact we know that there are many things that can go wrong and do go wrong. And for many for whom things do go wrong, the gap between comfort and disaster turns out to be surprisingly small.
We do not even need to think in this context of the suffering of the people of Syria and the disaster befalling them, or of the people of Ukraine or Crimea, or of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan – the list is endless.
I should add that when I was young I used to think, to my shame, that the people living near the poverty line, who perhaps faced starvation or dispossession, who had to move from their homes with what little they could carry, were somehow different from us: that they could bear it better; that since they were so close to suffering, this additional burden was bearable or in some way mattered less. How wrong I was, I later discovered. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’
What anyway of the family devastated by the death of a father suddenly in a road accident, or the shock caused by the onset of mental disorder or illness or an untreatable cancer? We do live with uncertainty and need to be conscious of uncertainty as a constant fact of life.
What I am about to say may seem a paradox, so clear is it in our general way of thinking in countries like Britain that God may or may not exist. The question whether God exists, though, is a nonsense, since the state of existence itself is contingent, dependent, subordinate. God cannot exist, since if God did exist he would not be God. God is What God is. God is the only certainty. God alone, not being contingent, dependent, subordinate, is utterly reliable and dependable. When all else fails, in the darkest circumstances, God remains constant, strong. We may not always sense it, but God’s love always surrounds us.
‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.’
Mary’s Yes, her journey, took her through the shadow of death to the glory of new life in her Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
We live with uncertainty until we learn to rely wholly on God and find our life in Him.