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.