Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Wednesday 25th March 2020 (The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Isaiah 7.10–14; Psalm 40.5–11; Hebrews 10.4–10; Luke 1.26–38
Many of our illusions and apparent certainties have been swept away in the past few days, and so any serene images we might have had about the scene at Nazareth as Mary is suddenly confronted by the messenger of God with life changing news may not fit our moods and circumstances at least for the present.
In her poem on this meeting between heaven and earth the American poet Denise Levertov acknowledges how firmly embedded in our psyche is our imagining of a calm and meekly accepting Mary:
“We know the scene ,” she says, “ the room variously furnished, almost always a lectern, a book, always the tall lily,”
But she senses a deeper undercurrent that is often brushed over by our piety.
“We are told, (she says) of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.”
Alone in this tight corner of time and space Mary faces an unknown future, with no one to help her decide how she will answer. True, given time and reflection there are the resources that her faith and tradition could help her with, to make sense of Gabriel’s message, and its implications. But an immediate response is called for. Is she deluded to think that God has come to her; chosen her to become the Mother of the Saviour? And what will others make of her when she attempts to explain to them what she has learnt? “How can this be?” she gasps. Will Joseph, her betrothed, understand her pregnancy? How will her family and community react, despite their enduring belief that God will save his people? How can the future of humanity rests on the shoulders of this young slip of a girl. It will take courage.
So, as Levertov continues,
She did not cry, ‘I cannot, I am not worthy,’ nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans, consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light. The lily glowed in it, and the iridescent wings.
Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.”
Her response to the call of God transformed her world. Mary offers us a shining example of courageous acceptance, acceptance of the will of God, acceptance of the present moment, no matter how uncertain it may seem; lean in resources and strategies as it is, but calling for us too to remain open in trust that God will not leave us or forsake us, ready to be there for others.
Today’s feast celebrates the fact that God has come amongst us to share our reality, our struggles and vulnerability. My own seclusion has given me the chance to start a book by one of my favourite New Testament scholars, the Methodist theologian Frances Young. What has always attracted me to her writings is the fact that her own experience of caring for her severely mentally handicapped son Arthur has always informed and enriched her insights into the God who enters human life full-on. She reminds us that God’s will is “to accommodate himself to the human level, working through the particularities and the constraints of history, paradoxically exercising power through weakness.”
Or as John’s Gospel proclaims:
“The Word has become flesh to live amongst us.”
So our faith is never about the denial of reality, only about the embracing of it, God at our side as we face it together. From her own demands and questionings as Arthur’s mother Frances Young ends each chapter of her book God’s Presence (Cambridge University Press) with some of her own poems. She believes that her own personal life must inform and resonate with her study and belief. In her words, “Those long, and sometimes desperate searches for answers to the questions of suffering over 40 years of caring for a profoundly disabled son has given me access to the deepest truths of the Christian religion.” Poetry and prayer for her acknowledges that human words and ideas will often fail to give us all the answers or explanations we might like, but her searching and believing go on.
In a series of poems on the significance of Mary for us Frances reflects on Mary as the type of the church and the model for all people of faith,
“type of each believer, called like her
to bring Christ into the world, to ponder and gaze,
Wide-eyed with wonder, discerning the signs right here
Of presence within the strangest places of all-
Real Presence in a cattle feeding-trough,
Radiant Presence in the face of a son born bruised
In body and mind and future. At the foot of the cross
She stands, the Theotokos, her breast pierced
With a sword, as Simeon had foretold. ..
Crushed by affliction.. she stands and prays..
taking up the labour, the travail and pain
Of every mother, and all creation at once.”
Like Our Lady we are called upon to discern God’s presence with us in strange places, taking up with her Son the labour, travail and pain of all creation. She does this confidence, singing that song which affirms that, in Frances’ words, the world is put to rights. After the pain of the Cross we are told that “She strides forth.. to bring the risen Christ to the world.” The call is for us to work with Him, and praying with her, for carers, NHS staff, medical researchers, the suffering and the grieving, the lonely and the afraid.
We ask her prayers-
“Entreat the Giver of mercy whom you bore,”
But we also ask for readiness to take up our own share of prayer and caring, as she did, to bring Christ’s love and presence into the world.
The poem ends,
“Grant me the depths of your compassion; to you I turn,
Pure Mother, you who bore the compassionate One.”
When certainty fails us and the future is uncertain it will be our compassion and our readiness to be there for each other that will spell out the saving truths today’s feast opens out to us