Monday, 25 March 2019

Mary’s ‘Yes’ at the Annunciation is
the ‘Yes’ of humanity and of creation

The Annunciation in a double fresco in the Church of the Panaghia Dexia in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

25 May 2019,

The Annunciation of our Lord

11 a.m., The Festal 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.

As I was saying in Castletown and Rathkeale yesterday, we are half-way through Lent, half way on our journey to Easter.

Once again this year, I am going to have two Easter celebrations … last year, after our Easter celebrations, I joined the Greek Orthodox celebrations of Good Friday and Easter in Thessaloniki, and this year I am planning to do the same in Crete.

As I looked at a fresco of the Annunciation in one church in Thessaloniki on Good Friday last year, I realised how important the Feast of the Annunciation is in the Greek Church, where it is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church. It is so important in Orthodox 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.

This fresco of the Annunciation in that church was also in sharp contrast to the plaster-cast statue images of the Virgin Mary we often see in churches in Ireland: her demure robes of white and blue hardly portray the strong Mary 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.

The canticle Magnificat, the Mary who stands by the Cross, the strong Mary of the Pieta, all make the connection between the Annunciation and Good Friday and Easter morning.

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 morning 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, John Donne marked this 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.

In Michelangelo’s great sculpture of the Pieta, the weeping Mary is bearing on her lap the body of the Crucified Christ who has 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?

When I see images of the Pieta, I imagine 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).

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 on Good Friday, and to the Resurrection on Easter Day, and all the hope for the future that Easter brings.

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

The Annunciation depicted on a panel inset on a house in Castle Bellingham, Co Louth (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.

The 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:

Hymns:

133: Long ago, prophets knew (CD 8)
704: Mary sang a song, a song of love (CD 40)

A depiction of the Annunciation in the Rose Room in the Kairos Centre in west London … the venue for a residential meeting of USPG trustees last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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