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Annunciation

Annun­ci­ation 

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Feast of the Annun­ci­ation, Fourth Sunday in Lent, 26th March, 2017

Read­ing: Luke 1. 26–38.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Luke’s beau­ti­fully craf­ted story of the Angel Gabriel’s vis­it to Mary has inspired artists, writers and schol­ars through­out the cen­tur­ies. In the his­tory of West­ern Art, the Annun­ci­ation has been one of the most pop­u­lar reli­gious sub­jects, rivaled only by the cru­ci­fix­ion and the Madonna and child. Over the cen­tur­ies as devo­tion to Mary became more and more import­ant in medi­ev­al theo­logy so the artists’ depic­tions of the scene evolved. In later works Mary and the angel almost appear to be in com­pet­i­tion as to who is the more splen­did and glor­i­ous in appear­ance so that by the late medi­ev­al peri­od Mary is seated on a throne, wear­ing roy­al robes and piously read­ing from the Scrip­tures. But in the earli­est depic­tions of this scene Mary is por­trayed in a man­ner rather closer to the Bib­lic­al text as an ordin­ary, plainly dressed young woman often seated at a spindle or weav­ing a gar­ment.

Luke tells us very little about Mary: he describes her as a vir­gin engaged to a man named Joseph of the house of Dav­id. The Greek for vir­gin is parthenos, so Mary is described as a parthen­on, which of course is also the name for the temple of Athena which from the acro­pol­is dom­in­ates the city of Athens. Per­haps, Luke is sug­gest­ing to his pre­dom­in­antly Gen­tile audi­ence, that Mary will rep­res­ent a new kind of temple, not based on wealth, hier­archy and dom­in­ance but the new temple of the people and the dwell­ing place for the prom­ised Mes­si­ah, Jesus. Luke does not tell us what she is doing when the angel­ic vis­it­or appears but as a first cen­tury peas­ant girl she was unlikely to have been idle. (The artists who depic­ted her spin­ning were sug­gest­ing a par­al­lel between Mary and Athena who was the god­dess of wis­dom, war­fare and weav­ing.) The angel’s vis­it was undoubtedly an inter­rup­tion- unex­pec­ted and unin­vited. Her response to the angel­ic visitor’s open­ing lines: “Greet­ings, favoured one, the Lord is with you” is to be ‘much per­plexed’. (NRSV) Per­plexed is a bit weak- the lit­er­al ren­der­ing is ‘greatly dis­turbed’ and dif­fer­ent trans­la­tions use expres­sions like ‘greatly troubled, (REB, NIV) or even Eugene Peterson’s ‘thor­oughly shaken’.

You may recall that earli­er in chapter one of Luke there was anoth­er annun­ci­ation. The eld­erly priest, Zechari­ah mar­ried to Mary’s sis­ter, Eliza­beth, was in the temple offer­ing incense in the sanc­tu­ary- a very rare priv­ilege. While engaged in this task he sees an angel and his response is one of ter­ror. He also is told that a birth is immin­ent- his wife who has been infer­tile is to bear a son in her old age and they are to name him John. There are some strik­ing con­trasts in the two events. Zechariah’s vis­it­a­tion is in response to years of pray­er for a child; he and his wife are described as right­eous, and the angel appears while he is engaged in his priestly duties in the temple in Jer­u­s­alem. Mary, on the oth­er hand is young (pos­sibly as young as four­teen or fif­teen), has not been inter­ced­ing for a child, has no par­tic­u­lar qual­i­fic­a­tions, and lives in a remote and very ordin­ary vil­lage. But in both cases God sends his mes­sen­ger to inter­rupt the nor­mal course of events with news of the birth of a child. Chil­dren and inter­rup­tion are syn­onym­ous. There is no pro­fes­sion more prone to inter­rup­tion than par­ent­hood.

Through­out the Scrip­tures, God is the God who inter­rupts. Out of the blue he speaks to Abra­ham, Isaac, Moses, Deborah, Gideon, Isai­ah, and Jonah, to name but a few. Often the response is one of puz­zle­ment and even res­ist­ance. Moses has to be prac­tic­ally dragged, kick­ing and strug­gling to the task assigned. Jonah is asked to go east and defi­antly goes west. Few of them respond as will­ingly as Mary.

Mary has received poor press from some fem­in­ist theo­lo­gians who have accused her of show­ing a servile, unques­tion­ing atti­tude which has dis­em­powered women through the cen­tur­ies. But servile and unques­tion­ing is not how I read the text. (To my mind, Mary the woman who pro­duces a child without any par­ti­cip­a­tion from a man ought to be a fem­in­ist icon!) The Angel does not present Mary with a choice but she makes the choice her own. Her ques­tion, “How can this be since I am a vir­gin?”, indic­ates that she is aware that what is being asked of her is out of the ordin­ary and will put her at risk of mis­un­der­stand­ing. Matthew’s account makes it clear that the first to mis­un­der­stand her is her own fiancé, Joseph, who not unnat­ur­ally believes she has been unfaith­ful to him. The depic­tions of Mary in late medi­ev­al paint­ings are anoth­er example of a dif­fer­ent kind of mis­un­der­stand­ing-Mary as the super saint far removed from the simple vil­lage girl described by the evan­gel­ist.

Moth­er­hood is nev­er a pass­ive or sub­ser­vi­ent role but Mary is called to a form of moth­er­hood which will demand everything of her and in the words of the devout Simeon, the man she will later meet in the temple, it will involve “a sword pier­cing her own soul.” Mary believes the mes­sage con­veyed to her, looks the angel­ic vis­it­or in the eye and will­ing embraces the task God has offered her.

The Mary of the song of Mary, which comes a little later in the chapter is clearly not meek or sub­missive. The Mag­ni­ficat is a rad­ic­al, even sub­vers­ive hymn of praise which declares that what God has done for Mary fore­shad­ows what God will do for the poor, the power­less and the oppressed of the world. He is the one who lifts the lowly and brings the lofty, low. The God who shows favour to Mary is one who chooses to work in ways that are unex­pec­ted and for whom noth­ing is impossible.

Mary’s response to the divine inter­rup­tion to her day has often been quoted as a mod­el of dis­ciple­ship: “Here I am the ser­vant of the Lord; let it be to me accord­ing to your word.” It expressed her con­sidered, yet will­ing response and the glimpses of her life giv­en through the Gos­pel nar­rat­ives con­firm these first impres­sions of a per­son who was reflect­ive, obed­i­ent to God’s call and care­ful in keep­ing the require­ments of the law. I sus­pect many of us have exper­i­enced God’s inter­rup­tions in our lives, even though we may think them rather trivi­al com­pared to Mary’s. When I was first ordained I had the priv­ilege of work­ing with a very wise and exper­i­enced Rect­or, Can­on Jim Whild. I remem­ber soon after I star­ted work­ing with him he said to me- ‘in our work we will have many inter­rup­tions. You may be strug­gling to get a ser­mon writ­ten and the phone will ring and you will have to stop what you are doing and go to see someone. Always remem­ber he said, the inter­rup­tions are part of your min­istry, so don’t resent them but wel­come them.” Good advice but hard advice. We like to be in con­trol of our agenda and get upset when some­thing hap­pens to dis­rupt our care­fully planned day. I saw a T Shirt recently which summed up our soci­ety very nicely- it pro­claimed, “I’m incred­ibly busy and what I’m doing is very import­ant.” Mary gives us a mod­el for a dif­fer­ent way of liv­ing. Some­times God’s pri­or­it­ies are dif­fer­ent from ours. We need to learn to be open and listen­ing to God’s voice that may come in the form of an unex­pec­ted inter­rup­tion to our routine. It is sober­ing to reflect that God’s plan of sal­va­tion for human­ity depended on the will­ing­ness of a young Israel­ite woman from a remote coun­try vil­lage to say yes to his inter­rup­tion. Let us pray for a will­ing­ness to be equally respons­ive to God’s call on our lives.

Philip Brad­ford