25 March 2014

Saying ‘Yes’ to the whole Salvific story

The Annunciation … an icon by the Romanian icon writer, Mihai Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

25 March 2014: The Annunciation of Our Lord

8.30 a.m.: The Eucharist, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 40: 5-10; Hebrews 10: 4-10; Luke 1: 26-38.

May I speak to you in the name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s Feast of the Annunciation is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church. As the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation, this day is so important in Eastern theology that the only time the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on Good Friday, or “Great and Holy Friday”, is if it falls on 25 March.

But in the Church of Ireland we often miss out on the significance of this day for a number of reasons:

● It always falls in Lent;
● There is a cultural antipathy within most parts of the Church of Ireland (though not throughout the Anglican Communion) to marking calendar dates associated with the Virgin Mary;
● And many of us find it difficult to take on board the plaster statue image of the Virgin Mary, in demure robes of white and blue, which run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated at Evensong in the canticle Magnificat, the strong Mary who stands by the Cross when most of the disciples have run away, the strong Mary of the Pieta.

We are all used to these images of the Virgin Mary that lack challenge and message, images that have been inherited through Mediaeval and Renaissance art.

So this morning I have chosen two images that challenge the way some weak traditional images have shaped, or mis-shaped, how we perceive the Virgin Mary and the movement at the heart of the Annunciation, which at the heart of it is her ‘Yes’ to the whole Salvific story, Mary’s ‘Yes’ that is a ‘Yes’ to the Trinitarian action in Creation.

My first image is an icon of the Annunciation in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. It is part of a series of icons by the Romanian icon writer, Mihai Cocu. The colours are bold and sharp, in stark contrast to the insipid blue and white in so many cheap plaster cast statues. Mary’s red and blue are clothes references to Christ’s divinity and humanity.

Mary is bold and confident, and she is holding – as she does in traditional icons – the red cloth she is said to be spinning for the curtain in the Temple, which we can see behind her, the curtain that is torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death on the cross.

Without Mary’s ‘Yes’ at the Annunciation, there is no incarnation, no Crucifixion, no Resurrection – this icon seeks to weave a thread that links all the major moments in the Salvific story.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London

My second challenging presentation of the Annunciation is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London.

Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), who wrote the carol, In the bleak mid-winter.

This painting shocked and stirred controversy when it was first exhibited in 1850.

Here, Rossetti offers a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation, rejecting the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary passively receiving the news.

While the angel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child, she appears to be recoiling, as if disturbed from sleep. She is shown in a state of fear – see how she cowers against the wall and casts her eyes down. This is a far cry from many depictions of Mary is shown in a state of humble acceptance. Her ‘Yes’ comes with a cost, the Cost of Discipleship; it is a ‘Yes’ of choice knowing the cost, rather than a passive ‘Yes’ without knowing the implications.

The tradition of iconography is incorporated with the embroidery that hangs at the end of her bed … part of the veil of the Temple that is torn on Good Friday.

Nor is Rossetti’s Mary dressed in traditional blue; instead she wears a simple white dress.

Rossetti also includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit.

Compared to traditional interiors, rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and similar details, the bedroom in Rossetti’s painting is shockingly simple. White stone tiles cover the floor; the walls have white paint; the window has no panes; and there is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow. It is a room so small that it is almost claustrophobic.

Rather than a winged, long-haired boyish angel, Rossetti paints an androgynous Gabriel, without wings, his face only visible in highly shadowed profile, with the hints of yellow flames around his feet.

The Virgin Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall, and she responds to the Angel Gabriel’s news with hesitance, fear and melancholy. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, and a bloodshot eye point intentionally to Christ’s crown of thorns.

Rossetti is concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been given a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility.

The ‘Yes’ of the Virgin Mary comes at a price, with a cost. It should never be portrayed romantically and winsomely. Discipleship has a cost and hand is costly.

What price are you willing to say to Christ coming into your life?

Mary’s ‘Yes’ is a ‘Yes’ to God the Father fulfilling his plans for Creation; a ‘Yes’ to God the Son, from Incarnation, through life, passion, death and resurrection, through to his coming again; a ‘Yes’ to the Holy Spirit as he moves through Creation calling us and the world to give our own ‘Yes’ to God’s call.

These two images remind us that this feast is a Trinitarian movement that moves and challenges and changes us and the world.

And so, as we say ‘Yes,’ may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Pour your grace into our hearts, Lord,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

God Most High,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
We thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power.
May we like Mary be joyful in our obedience,
and so bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)


You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed.


Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the institute chapel on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 2014.

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