Advent 4, Sunday 22nd December 2019
Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-end
‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’
‘The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’ I want to use those words as a sort of launch pad into a reflection on the moment of conception of the Christ-child in Mary. I invite you to see the beautiful fresco by Fra Angelico, entitled ‘The Annunciation’, as a lens through which which shows the moment, as the artist imagined it, of the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her she will conceive and bear a son whose name will be Jesus. The visual sense is a way of getting inside stories in a different way from just using words. This picture fills out that moment which ends with the words of Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. (Luke 1:38). For this moment is so sacred, mysterious and full of love that we need all of our senses to apprehend it.
Of all the many things that I could draw out I will mention just three. First, the simplicity of the painting. Its very emptiness draws us to focus on the two subjects, Gabriel and Mary. Secondly, it would be more true to say that it what is happening between them that is the centre as Mary listens to Gabriel’s unbelievable words, words full of love and grace as God reaches out to humanity with the promise of the Saviour, and Mary gives her consent: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Thirdly, look at their hands, crossed over their hearts. This speaks to me of something that is happening at the level of the heart: literally, heart to heart. It speaks too to mutual respect and of love. The pattern made by the hands of a cross speaks of the cross, which one day the child, grown to a man, will be led to. But look again at the shape the hands make. Does is remind you of the wings of a bird? Usually in paintings like this, where the Holy Spirit is mentioned, the artist puts a dove in somewhere. In this picture, it seems that the dove’s shape is made by hands of Mary and Gabriel. Here we have, beautifully captured, this profound encounter between a young woman of maybe 14 – Pathfinder age! – and the Archangel Gabriel. Although we cannot see Him, it is the Spirit of God that fills the space between the two subjects as they lean into each other. Could we say this is a picture of the Spirit?
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Can Mary have known where this would lead? She probably didn’t, but something within her wanted to say yes, wanted to give herself, wanted to trust the heavenly messenger. There is a beauty, a loveliness, an irresistibility to God that can make our hearts long for Him. Did Mary know that in her heart, her mind, her body? Did her heart beat faster, her pupils dilate, as she was literally, physically moved? Was it like falling in love? As all this took place, the ‘word’, the Spirit and her consent literally caused Christ to be conceived in her. Deep within Mary, such an overpowering movement of the Spirit took place that she conceived. Do you notice the dual action of the word – that is, in that moment, the spoken word of God through Gabriel, working together with the Spirit to bring about something completely new, fresh and wonderful. The DNA of humanity joined with the DNA of God. In time, she gave birth to a human child, a boy, named Jesus, literally the body of Christ, the flesh and blood home of the eternal Word of God which was in the beginning with God, to reference John’s gospel, chapter 1.
Outside of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, not so much is made of Mary and yet, she stands as a bridge between God and humanity. She was not, like her son, an incarnation of God; and yet she bore him, it was her ‘yes’ that enabled it all to happen. It should be no surprise that she has been and is honoured. In Greek she is known as the ‘Theotokos’, the God-bearer. We owe her a great deal. We should also listen carefully to her words as they have been recorded. Because we are now the body of Christ. Listen to St Paul, writing to the Corinthian church: ‘You are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Mary was quite literally the mother of the human Jesus, the body of the eternal Christ. We now, with all of our brothers and sisters across the world, form that body. In that sense, if this isn’t a bridge too far for any of us, Mary is our mother too. I am trying here to join the dots between God, Mary, Jesus and us. A thick line joins those dots. At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. But let’s not just see this as something that happened ‘out there’ and ‘back then’ but something that happens ‘in here’ and ‘right now’ too. Let us too be Christ-bearers. What a gift that will be to the world.
Let me finish by reflecting on the words she spoke. Those words are there for us too. They can be a prayer for each of us as we embrace our own destiny as the body of Christ, Christ-bearers.
‘Here am I’. Mary was present. Present in that moment. Can we be present with God? With the churning, restlessness of our minds laid to one side for a time just to be present; present with ourselves for who we are, and present for God? It’s not an easy thing at all but it is within us to be that person.
‘The servant of the Lord’. Mary was present with God, and she knew who she was. She knew that the world didn’t revolve around her; she was the servant, the handmaid as some translations have it, of the Lord. It is the best that any of us can be. ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. Yes, I am ready. Let it happen as You want, because you know best.
I’m going to finish by playing a piece of choral music that some of you heard at the Chorate concert 2 weeks ago. It’s entitled ‘Dixit Maria’ by the German composer Hassler. Here are the words in Latin and English: ‘Dixit Maria ad angelum, ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Mary said the the angel, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. I invite you, as you hear the music, to see again the picture, to reflect on it, and perhaps to make the words your own prayer. But be careful. You don’t know what will happen!