24 December 2017
10.30 Parish Eucharist
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Canon Simon Cowling
Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38
Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ God said, ‘I will be with you.’
The call of Moses is described at the start of Exodus. The call sets a kind of pattern which we see in similar divine callings later in the Old Testament. Moses, like the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah centuries later, cannot understand why God is calling him to undertake a task that seems impossible. So Moses protests his lack of eloquence: I am slow of speech and slow of tongue; and in the books that bear their names Isaiah protests his unworthiness: I am a man of unclean lips; while Jeremiah offers his youth as an excuse: I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy. God’s commission is always followed by an objection. But in each case God’s reassurance follows and God’s calling is embraced.
The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Luke’s account of the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth is a story of a divine calling rather like that of Moses, or Isaiah or Jeremiah. The Annunciation story begins with an assurance of God’s favour and of God’s presence. Mary’s perplexity at the greeting conveys to us her sense that this is no ordinary visit and Gabriel no ordinary visitor. That sense is confirmed when Gabriel tells Mary that she is being called by God to undertake a task, to bear a son who will inherit the throne of David and reign for ever. Then comes the objection: I am a virgin. God’s commission is always followed by an objection. But God’s reassurance follows and Mary embraces her calling. One writer has described Mary as the one who is first depicted as a believer. She is the first Christian disciple.
The call of Moses has the drama of the burning bush; the call of Isaiah is described while the prophet is experiencing an ecstatic vision of the heavenly throne room; the call of Jeremiah is set in Jerusalem, the great city of David, at a time of dramatic political change in the ancient near east. The Annunciation story has the drama of Gabriel’s sudden appearance, and has evoked the very best in artists, musicians, and poets across the centuries. But there are other elements of the story that are more extraordinary even if, literally, more mundane. Perhaps these elements have been overshadowed by the dramatic appeal that always accompanies angels. Consider: here is an unmarried young woman, obscure in worldly terms, living in a conservatively-minded society. Her home is far from the centre of Jewish life in the relatively poor and racially mixed region of Galilee. The northern town of Nazareth is so obscure that it is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. History recounts little about the life of provincial Jewish families in first century northern Palestine, but Mary surely cannot have had any expectations for her life with Joseph beyond the ordinary. Yet it is in Nazareth that Mary is called by God in an extraordinary way. She is called to obedience, and through that obedience God’s loving purposes for the world will be revealed in the birth of one who will be called the Son of God.
Mary’s obedience to the call of God as described by Luke is profound in its simplicity and humbling in its trustfulness. Small wonder that the story of the Annunciation embedded itself in the Christian tradition as an archetype, as an idealised human response to the call of God: in one of her Revelations Mother Julian of Norwich hints at this. She has a vision of Mary whom God describes as the greatest joy I can show you. Julian comments Here….our Lord God is speaking to all who are going to be saved, as it were to all humanity in the person of one individual. In the medieval period in Europe Mary’s role in God’s salvation of the world found expression in fervent devotion which was especially widespread in England, or ‘Mary’s Dowry’ as the faithful were encouraged to think of their country. Meditations and prayers on the Joys of Mary – which included the Annunciation, the story we have heard today – were used very effectively as teaching aids.
Such piety and devotion are part of the rich tapestry of the Christian tradition, and the painting, music and poetry they have generated are central to the patrimony that belongs to that tradition. But high art and devotion to an idealised Mary must always be set alongside profound thanks for a poor young woman from an obscure town in an occupied territory whose obedience to God’s call on her life would lead to the intensely physical, painful, noisy and dangerous act of giving birth. Real flesh, real blood, a life shared, a life given. That is the true mystery of Emmanuel, God among us; and that is the true measure of Mary’s embrace of her calling. Amen.