St Francis, Annunciation (04.04.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Yesterday morning Mary (Amer) reminded us that today we are celebrating the start of the Christmas story – and you could sense people groaning inwardly! Who wants to know about Christmas when the clocks have only just gone forward? But Mary was right, and in more ways than one. Gabriel’s message, so often celebrated down the Christian centuries in the visual arts, in poetry, music and drama, is the beginning of the process through which the Creator becomes part of his own creation. Poets from “Anon” to the twentieth-century Orcadians Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown and the Anglo-American Denise Levertov have pondered the mystery which forms the central section of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the keystone in the arch which stretches from Zechariah’s being struck dumb as he performed his priestly duties in the temple to his tongue being miraculously loosed when his wife Elizabeth has given birth.

But there is another reason than the simply biological for us to regard the Annunciation as the beginning of the Christmas story, a reason which this year’s calendar both highlights and obscures. The Annunciation is regularly bumped off its proper date when that date falls within Holy Week or Easter Week, so it’s not uncommon to find ourselves keeping the feast on a Monday in early April. But this year, for the second time this century, and for the last time until 2157, 25th March – nine months to the day before Christmas – was the day on which we kept Good Friday.

Now, according to ancient tradition, in the year when Jesus was crucified, 14th Nisan, the day on which he was crucified according to the Jewish lunar calendar – that day fell on 25th March in the imperial calendar of Rome. That same ancient tradition also reflects the belief that, because the life of Jesus was perfect in every respect, it must have begun and ended on the same day – and the beginning of his life was reckoned, not from the day of his birth, but from the moment of his conception. So that 25th March, not 25th December, is the key date. Tonight’s celebration, though deferred from its proper date, is the foundation of the Christian year.

Now you may be thinking that all this may be very interesting, but does it actually matter? I think it does. First because it puts the skids under a couple of common criticisms levelled at Christian faith and practice: that the Church celebrates her Lord’s birthday on a date that has been, so to speak, plucked out of the air; or that Christmas is really a pagan festival “baptised” by the Church on the principle that “if you can’t beat them join them” (there’s a very silly internet meme doing the rounds which tries to say the same about Easter). Second, and more importantly, it matters because it makes explicit the link between incarnation and redemption.

One of the key insights of the first Franciscan thinkers was that “incarnation is already redemption”. The thirteenth-century Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus, who was, incidentally, based in Oxford for part of his career – John Duns Scotus taught that incarnation was part of God’s purposes from the very beginning. Christ wasn’t Plan B after the whole thing went pear-shaped with Adam and Eve, which is the way that many Christians seem to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. His incarnation is far more than a mere mopping-up exercise, a way of cleaning up the mess made by human beings.

Duns Scotus taught that God becoming human flash and bone was an inevitable consequence of God’s perfect love and God’s perfect and absolute freedom. It wasn’t an emergency response to human failure. As a modern Franciscan thinker, Richard Rohr, has written, “For Franciscans, Christmas is already Easter because in becoming a human being, God already shows that it’s good to be human, to be flesh. The problem is already somehow solved. Flesh does not need to be redeemed by any sacrificial atonement theory… In Franciscan parlance, Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. This grounds Christianity in pure love and perfect freedom from the very beginning. It creates a very coherent and utterly positive spirituality, which draws people toward lives of inner depth, prayer, reconciliation, healing, and even universal “at-one-ment,” instead of mere sacrificial atonement. Nothing changed on Calvary, but everything was revealed as God’s suffering love—so that we could change!”

But where, you are probably asking, is Mary in all this? Isn’t all this talk obscuring her role in the drama of salvation? She was, after all, the one to whom Gabriel was sent. She was the addressee of his message. She was the one, so the poets and the painters tell us, on whose answer to that message the whole of creation waited.

Where is Mary? She is the one who models for the rest of humanity a right response to God’s gracious invitation. She is the one who is full of grace, as her Son will be. “Full of grace”, St John says, “full of grace and truth”. There’s a lovely modern French version of the Angelus which we sometimes sing here in English translation. It begins with the words “comblée de grâces”: in other words “heaped up”, or “piled high”, with grace. That’s what makes Mary special, her awareness. She is one who is conscious of God’s presence as gift, in everything, in her. She sees the risk. “How can this be,” she asks “since I am a virgin?” But she doesn’t retreat into an imagined safe zone, even though, as Luke tells us, “she was much perplexed by [Gabriel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be”. She looks at what lies ahead, with its potential for suffering as well as for joy, for ill as well as for good, and she says “yes”. ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

That is not to suggest that Mary’s “yes” came easily. To quote Richard Rohr again: “Mary’s kind of ‘yes’ is an assent utterly given from beyond, no preconditions of worthiness required, a calm, wonderful ability to trust that someone else is in charge, and the foundations are good and going somewhere. It is a ‘yes’ that is pure in motivation, open-ended in intent, and calm in confidence. Only grace can achieve such freedom in the soul, heart, or mind. We hardly know how to think this way by ourselves.” But “to think this way” is essential for our growth as Christians, our growth as human beings. To think this way is to place ourselves at the intersection of incarnation and redemption, to let the Son of God grow to life here in our hearts today as he grew two thousand years ago in the womb of Mary. To him, with the Father…