Tuesday, 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.

Collect:

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)

Preface:

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.

Blessing:

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.

Art for Lent (21): ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’
(1850), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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

Patrick Comerford

Later this morning [25 March 2014], I am presiding at the Eucharist to celebrate The Annunciation of Our Lord. The readings are: Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 40: 5-10; Hebrews 10: 4-10; and Luke 1: 26-38.

This is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church as the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation, but we often miss out on the significance of this day because it always falls in Lent; because of residual antipathy within most parts of the Church of Ireland to marking calendar dates associated with the Virgin Mary, and because theologically many of us find it difficult to take on board some of the traditional images of a demure Mary that run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated in the canticle Magnificat, the strong Mary at the foot of the Cross, the strong Mary of the Pieta.

One of the most challenging presentations in art of the Annunciation that I know is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London. I have chosen this as my work of Art for Lent this morning.

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the group Victorian artists who wanted to emulate the richness and purity of the mediaeval period. The son of an exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter.

This is one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and when it was first exhibited in 1850 it shocked and stirred controversy.

In this painting, Rossetti offers a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation, rejecting the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary passively receiving the news. Instead, he seeks to give the picture a supernatural realism.

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.

Although Rossetti relies on earlier traditions for many of the symbols he uses in this scene, his use of these symbols, his depiction of space, and most significantly his portrayal of the two figures represent significant departures from earlier tradition.

This painting is unusual in that the artist shows the Virgin Mary 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 the Annunciation where the Virgin Mary is shown in a state of humble acceptance.

White is the dominant colour in the painting, relieved only by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity, and is reinforced by the lily embroidery – the same one the Virgin Mary is shown making in Rossetti’s painting of ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin,’ also in the Tate.

Early great paintings of this scene usually depict lilies, the symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity, in a vase nearby the scene as the angel addresses the Virgin. Although Rossetti also uses lilies, he integrates them into both the action and the environment of the scene.

Notice how the Archangel Gabriel holds out a stem with lilies, offering them to Mary and seemingly presenting her with an embodiment of the chastity and purity she is fated to continue throughout her life. An embroidery hangs at the end of the bed, which Mary is also working on in ‘The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.’ This plays a contextual role – this is a young girl’s bedroom, so we might expect to find her needlework in this space – as well as perhaps representing her active choice to live purely since she has chosen to embroider a lily.

Mary is not dressed in her traditional blue; instead she wears a simple white dress. Yet, Rossetti does not ignore the importance of blue as the colour associated with the Virgin Mary and heaven: he places a blue screen directly behind her, and looking through the window, the sky is a similar shade of blue, alluding to heaven.

Most Annunciation scenes have candles that have just blown out as a result of the entrance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Rossetti paints a wall sconce with a hint of a flame – a different presentation of a usual symbol. He includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, although in this case he has not drastically transformed a traditional symbol.

Rossetti’s imagined space shows great innovation. Compared to the traditional interiors, rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and similar details, the Virgin Mary’s 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 the only object in the room that I have not mentioned already is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow.

In traditional paintings, the room draws the viewer in and the eye is allowed to move through the scene to the back wall of the bedroom. But Rossetti places the Virgin Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobically small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: her bed appears about to slide out of the painting and the floor on the left of the painting blends into the wall, furthering the effect of a steep plane.

For the view out the window at the back, Rossetti might have given the scene depth by allowing us to see a scene in the distance. Instead, he shows only blue sky and part of a tree.

Look too at the angel. 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.

Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall. She is markedly adolescent with her beautiful young features, unbrushed straight hair, childishly skinny body, and the hesitance, fear and melancholy with which she responds to the Angel Gabriel’s news. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, reminiscent of a bloodshot eye or perhaps intentionally of Christ’s crown of thorns.

Rossetti has no use for the stiff, exaggerated poses of primitive Virgin Marys. He seems most concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been given a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility. And in this task, Rossetti thoroughly succeeds.

The Virgin Mary is keenly aware of her position, and it is this self-awareness and terror that endows the painting with its power. This painting inspires the viewer to religious contemplation and prayer. But it also speaks strongly to universal issues of growth, responsibility and youthful vulnerability.

The traditional Troparion or Hymn of the Day for this day in Orthodox Church includes these words:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”

Collect:

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.

Tomorrow:The Icon not made by Hands’ or ‘Image of Edessa’