14th Aug, 2005

The Assumption of the Blessed Mother

Sermon preached by Fr Ian Elliott Davies, the Rector,
Blessing of the new Chasuble, Induction of new Cell Members of the Shrine of OLW

Lections:
Rev. 11:19-12:6, 10, the Woman clothed with the sun
Gal 4:4-7 born of a woman, born under the law
St Luke 1:46-55 the Magnificat
Botticelli’s depiction of the Annunciation

One of the more creative and inspiring ways in which people have thought about the meaning of the Annunciation through the centuries has not been by listening to lengthy, erudite sermons but by looking at and meditating on great paintings. It would be wonderful if today we could assemble a good number of these paintings depicting the annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary and then go from one painting to another and see the magnificent details that each artist in each century has highlighted and pin pointed for us. Indeed, I once read that a Bishop, a Bishop no less, stated that on this one occasion of the Church’s calendar he wished he could have an overhead projector and large screen in the Church, not so that we could all join in the singing of revivalist hymns, but so we might meditate together on the vast array of iconography and artistry of some of these great paintings. Tintoretto, Piera della Francesca, Giotto, da Vinci. Instead, alas, you have to listen to me: Joseph Warren who is a merciful and considerate office assistant, has kindly provided as a focus for our thoughts as we think on St Luke’s account of the annunciation and the Magnificat that we have heard as this morning’s Gospel reading, he has provided us with a reproduction of Botticelli’s Annunciation which is in your order of service. It is worth having that picture before you as we hear Edwin Muir’s famous poem on the Annunciation.

The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space.
The eternal spirits in freedom go.

See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time. Immediacy
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its number’d octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

[Edwin Muir, 1887-1959, The Annunciation]

Well, you know, as a friend of mine once asked in a sermon [Canon DJC Davies, Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral] – what if she’d said ‘No!’ What if she’d been too busy, or too conventional, or just too afraid? There were a thousand ways of getting out of it: ‘it’s market day, or I’m not that kind of girl, or I’m sorry but I don’t take appointments with archangels on Sundays, or I’d rather continue with my rather racy novel with which Botticelli has very conveniently provided on my lectern.’

But, for a fleeting moment the consequences of saying ‘yes’ actually run past her; and the angel sees the momentary fear in those beautiful eyes. ‘Be not afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God.’
And the shape that God’s favour would take? To be the Mother of God’s Son. That is why we are here today. We celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, the day when God takes back to himself the woman who had been brave enough, faithful enough, in tune with God enough at the Annunciation to take God and the holy Archangel at their word and say Yes.
Botticelli has depicted for us that very moment when all the universe holds its breath and waits, the moment when God’s heavenly Hosts await the Yes of a young, slip of a girl. The archangel as you can see has indeed feathered through time, his robes still billowing from their long, arduous journey and the folds of the robes fall peacefully, gently, almost imperceptibly into place on the floor. The wings are diaphanous, splendid, radiant and softly fold behind his back: the archangel’s right hand rises as he enters the space before the Virgin’s eyes; he will not intrude, he will not cajole nor force but will only wait. God has put himself entirely in the hands of a young Jewish woman because only from this acceptance, from this God-given capacity to say ‘yes’ will God’s creative plan of salvation come to fruition. Botticelli shows the moment when the Virgin’s Yes is pronounced; she’s almost been weighing it up- left hand No, right hand Yes, left hand No, right hand Yes and then at last Our Lady says Yes as she stretches out toward him.
Muir’s poem and Botticelli’s painting continue: even as the Archangel holds her in his eyes and she holds him in hers, the world still goes on.

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
Sound’s perpetual roundabout
Rolls its number’d octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune.

Outside the window is the ordinary world of men and women and children, the horses and their carts go trundling along the dirt track of a road, the water mill turns the depths and churns the murky octaves of the river that flows out and away under the bridge- one things for certain, this is not just First Century Palestine- this is Botticelli’s current, contemporary Fifteenth Century, Italian urban sprawl: and the point is this: that this is where God arrives, always in the here and now, always in the present, in the moment of thought and prayer and realization and contemplation.
This annunciation and every encounter with the divine, occurs in this world, not on Venus or Pluto or Mars, but in the very profoundly ‘thisness’ of our life. In the place where we buy the lottery tickets, where we worry about love and faithfulness, where we grieve and feel guilty over the mother or father we had to put into that home, in the place where we do our shameful things as well as in the place where there are the things that surprise us by their extraordinary generosity and uncommon virtue.
Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of one of the American Church’s great heroes of the faith who knew a great deal about the ordinariness of the encounter with God.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels the twenty four year old seminarian had marched against racism and segregation with Luther King in Alabama and then finds himself meditating on how God might call him. Where might God’s will be found? He has thought long and hard about Our Lady’s great song, the Magnificat and meditated on how that might apply to him as he thinks through God’s call.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. “He hath showed strength with his arm.” As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment” that would, in retrospect, remind me of others—particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” I knew then… The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”
So it is on a Sunday afternoon just a short time after writing those words he pops around to the corner shop to buy some soda: he sees a white thug calling out racist slogans and vitriol and making his way toward a young, black teenage girl called Ruby Sales. Daniels sees the situation and the impending violence as the thug moves toward the young, slip of a girl. As Daniels moves closer he sees the gun in the thug’s hand rising into the space before the young woman, and in a moment, in an instant of time Daniels, pushes the young maiden out of the way and stands deliberately in the way of the bullet. You see this ‘other Annunciation’ came in the thisness of ordinary life and Daniels says Yes: he falls instantly and dies. The Church does not celebrate as feast days the death of her saints, the Church celebrates the day that the saint is born into heaven.
So, I suppose the question is not so much what if Jonathan Myrick Daniels or the Blessed Virgin Mary said No, but rather the question will rather more importantly be ‘what if we say Yes?’
The consequences of saying Yes may run before our vision, God will catch the flicker of fear in our eyes. The excuses, the understandable excuses, will half form in our minds. But if we can get past the excuses and see that God, having placed himself in our hands under the form of the blessed sacrament today, is staring into our eyes, holding our gaze tomorrow, yearning for us to say Yes to him and to cradle his new life with all its terrible demand and transforming joy.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

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