Tuesday, 10 April 2018

When the Feast of
the Annunciation falls
a little later than usual

The Annunciation depicted on the Nativity Façade of the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Nicholas’s Church, Adare, Co Limerick

10 April 2018,

The Annunciation of our Lord (transferred)

8 p.m., The Mothers’ Union Lady Day Eucharist

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

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

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church. As God’s action that leads directly to the Incarnation, this day is so important in the Orthodox Church that the only time the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on Good Friday or ‘Great and Holy Friday’ in Greece is if it falls on 25 March.

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

● It always falls in Lent, which is why we are marking it this evening.

● There is a cultural antipathy in many 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.

This year, Palm Sunday fell on 25 March, which is ordinarily the Feast of the Annunciation, and two years ago (2016), Good Friday fell on the same date. On both occasions, we had to transfer the feast of the Annunciation from Holy Week to the week after Easter Week.

But I find this coincidence, within the space of two years, is profoundly meaningful. The date of the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, was actually chosen to match the supposed historical date of the Crucifixion. This was to underline the idea that Christ came into the world on the same day that he left it: his life formed a perfect circle. In other words, 25 March was both the first day and the last day of his earthly life, the beginning and the completion of his work on earth.

Saint Augustine of Hippo explained it this way:

He is believed to have been conceived on 25 March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived … corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried …

Both events were understood to have happened in the spring, when life returns to the earth, and at the vernal equinox, once the days begin to grow longer than the nights and light triumphs over the power of darkness. Fans of JRR Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings cycle among us this evening know that the final destruction of the Ring takes place on 25 March, to align Tolkien’s own ‘eucatastrophe’ with this most powerful of dates.

The early historian, the Venerable Bede, says this dating is symbolic but it is not only a symbol: it reveals the deep relationship between Christ’s death and all the created world, including the sun, the moon and everything on earth.

The Annunciation and the Crucifixion are often paired together in mediaeval art. This pairing inspired the development of a distinctive and beautiful image found almost uniquely in English mediaeval art: the lily crucifix – on painted screens, stained glass windows, carvings on stone tombs, misericords, wall-paintings and the painted ceiling of cathedrals, churches and chapels.

The link between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion brings together in one circle the beginning and the end of Mary’s motherhood, its joy and its sorrow, as well as completing the circle of Christ’s life on earth.

When Good Friday fell on 25 March 1608, too, John Donne marked this paradoxical conjunction of ‘feast and fast,’ falling ‘some times and seldom,’ with a well-known poem in which he draws on the same parallels found in those mediaeval texts and images.

I was acutely aware of these coincidences during a visit to Barcelona for Good Friday and Easter two years ago.

One of the most beautiful works of architecture in Barcelona – indeed, one of the most beautiful churches in the world – is the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia, built from 1894, but not expected to be completed until 2026. The basilica designed by Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) has two façades: the Nativity Façade depicts scenes from Christ’s birth and early life, including the Annunciation and the Incarnation; on the opposite side, the Passion Façade includes carvings of scenes from his trial, passion and crucifixion. In a very moving way, Gaudí brings together the Annunciation and the Crucifixion.

But perhaps more movingly this link was emphasised in the processions through the narrow streets of Barcelona on the evening of Good Friday. One float we followed had a life-sized effigy of the Pieta. The weeping Mary was bearing on her lap the body of the Crucified Christ who had been taken down from the Cross.

In that moment of searing sorrow, she must have wondered: Is this what it was all for, is this the end? Without the benefit of foresight, she could not have known the Easter story.

In her womb, she has carried the Christ Child. Now she cradles the Crucified Christ on her lap. The lap on which he had once played is now the lap on which his limp and lifeless body lies dead.

Was this the journey – from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion?

As I watched the Pieta images carried in the funeral biers in those Good Friday processions in Barcelona, I imagined the Virgin Mary as a mother who knows the fears and lost hopes of so many women: the women who see the death of their own children; the women who hope to be mothers and grandmothers, but never are; the women who see, experience and feel violence and violation at first-hand in their own lives; the women whose own grief is hijacked by others for their own agendas.

But Mary’s yes was to all this: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1: 38).

Yet, all of this, birth and death, annunciation and crucifixion, remain perplexing, find no explanation without Resurrection. As the Apostle Paul puts it: ‘if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’ (I Corinthians 15: 14).

And again: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’ (I Corinthians 15: 17-19).

The Virgin Mary’s ‘Yes’ at the Annunciation is her yes, is our yes, is the ‘Yes’ of humanity and of creation, not only to the Incarnation, but to the Crucifixion we remembered on Good Friday, and to the Resurrection we celebrated on Easter Day, and all the hope for the future that Easter brings.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This sermon was prepared for 10 April 2018.

A float in the Good Friday procession in Barcelona on 25 March 2016 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Blessing:

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

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