St Francis, Terriers - Annunciation (25.03.2017)

Tony Dickinson

What we celebrate this morning has inspired some of the most beautiful art and some of the best-loved words and music in the world. Many of the carols and hymns that we sing at Christmas belong more properly to this day. Painters, sculptors, glaziers and metal-workers, poets, composers and jobbing musicians have given of their best to celebrate the story that we heard in our gospel reading from St Luke. Powerful men have, like the angel, bowed their knee before the young woman who stands at the centre of those pictures and sculptures. One English statesman of the High Middle Ages was fascinated by this story to the point of obsession. He had it carved above each entrance to the educational establishments which he founded. It features in the richly jewelled "M" which he left to one of them, and tiny golden figures of Mary and the angel were once soldered to the crook of the staff which he carried as a bishop.

This story features so powerfully in our culture because, despite its strangeness to contemporary ears, it sets out a vision for humankind which is not about wealth and power, not about the great and the good, not about violence, not about suspicion and hatred. It is about a world made whole through the birth of a child, a child in whom heaven and earth touch. It is about the moment when God reveals himself not as cruelty or coercion but as boundless, unconditional love, love which transcends every human category, every human division, every way in which human beings label and marginalise and dismiss other human beings.

In order to understand that we need to place this morning's readings, and especially our Gospel reading in their context. We need to set Mary's fearless response to the divine messenger against the fearful response of King Ahaz to political events eight centuries earlier. We need to set the promise of healing, renewal and hope through a pregnancy and a birth against the ultimate futility of a multitude of deaths. 'For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.' We need to understand, with what has been called the "alternative orthodoxy" of the Franciscan tradition, that incarnation is already redemption.

In this pregnancy and birth we recognise Emmanuel. We recognise that God is with us, with us beyond the shame and the name-calling which surrounded Jesus and those who follow him, with us in our living and our dying, with us beyond death. We recognise that in him the whole of humanity is accepted by God, that there is no "us" and no "them".

It's quite hard to do that today, given the huge amount of noise that is being made by all sorts of people grinding axes in the aftermath of Wednesday's tragic events in London. But that fourteenth-century statesman, and the artists and the sculptors, the poets and musicians who, over the centuries, have given today's commemoration a central place in their art and in their writing are wiser than the bloggers, the columnists, the talk-show hosts who seize today's events as an opportunity to spread as widely as possible the rage and fear that they feel.

As we mourn the death of Keith Palmer, and of the others who died on Wednesday, as we hold before God those Breton schoolchildren and the others who were injured or traumatised by what they experienced that day, we turn to contemplate the life which makes sense of all life, from its beginnings in the womb of a perplexed young woman in Nazareth to its ending on a gibbet outside Jerusalem. In that ending we see a death that gives meaning and value to those other deaths - to all deaths - we catch a glimpse of what it means to talk of the child whose birth we shall celebrate in nine months' time as Emmanuel, God with us, and we experience a call to echo Mary's words, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

At the Communion each Wednesday during Lent we are sharing a poem chosen by the poet-priest Malcolm Guite to guide us on our journey through these weeks of desolation and deepening darkness. On this day, when we pause for a moment to look to the Light which overcomes that darkness, I'm going to share with you some words that Malcolm Guite himself has written, words which invite us to look beyond the news headlines, into the depths of reality where life and love overcome death and hatred, and to share in celebration of what he calls "that blessed moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time."

We see so little, stayed on surfaces, We calculate the outsides of all things, Preoccupied with our own purposes We miss the shimmer of the angels' wings, They coruscate around us in their joy A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled, They guard the good we purpose to destroy, A hidden blaze of glory in God's world. But on this day a young girl stopped to see With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice; The promise of His glory yet to be, As time stood still for her to make a choice; Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred, The Word himself was waiting on her word. And to God's Word, who is alive and reigns in the unity of the Father and the Holy Spirit..