The following is a sermon I preached at a friend of mines parish about three years ago. Since the Annunciation story is this Sunday's Gospel reading according to the RCL, I thought I would dust this off again and share it. A not quite so clear version of the painting I refer to is here.
When Tim asked me if I would like to preach this afternoon I agreed readily. I then, with out really thinking, asked what the texts are. When I got home and looked them up in the Prayer Book I was under whelmed. These are texts that have been handled so much that they have become slippery from their use. They’ve become so familiar that they’re like an ice cube: squeeze to hard and they shoot right out of our hand. Unable to get any in on the Gospel, I turned to look at art depicting the event. For the most part I was left cold. In general, the pictures were of a sheepish Angel Gabriel, often holding flowers standing at a distance from Mary who is sitting at a window reading an improbably illuminated Librium, often in Latin. I even saw one that depicts Our Lady holding a Rosary. Eastern Icons are often of the same idea: Gabriel paying homage to a pure Madonna. The emphasis is on the holy and transcendent. Then I stumbled upon the work of a Venetian artist named Jacopo Robusti, called Tintoretto. His depiction is very, very different.
First the setting is different. Far from a little room or a walled garden, we are presented with a room that can only be described as messy. The plaster has cracked, with the bricks behind showing through. There is a motley collection of broken furniture and there are signs of half completed carpentry. Instead of a window out of which Mary has been looking, or a prayer book Mary has been spinning. Out of the portal we see a man busily at work with a saw, presumably Joseph. You see “betrothed,” meant at this time that they may have been living together in a, presumably chaste, arrangement to see if she was acceptable to him. They are both hard at work in a decaying house as the sun slides down into night. We see a couple laboring until they are unable to see any more. They are like Adam and Eve after the fall, laboring in a world of decay and death. Then something altogether unexpected happens. An angel of the Lord comes in.
Rather than a sheepishly coy angel, we have a Gabriel who swoops in, with an entourage of Cherubs. He’s looking a little apologetic. Mary is far from a passive presence. Her body is twisted to face the onrushing Angels and her face is a mixture of fear and marvel. The Holy Spirit is depicted in the traditional form of a Dove, but it’s far from some innocuous pidgin with a halo. The Holy Spirit manifests as a being of pure light. It illumines the air above the Virgin and the light casts the world in which she has lived in stark relief and rivals the dying light of the Sun. This very human Mary is confronted with God in the most direct way imaginable.
I emphasize that this is a human Mary because it is Tintoretto’s very Realist depiction of Mary and her condition that drew me to it. She is no plaster saint in this painting. She is an ordinary woman, a girl by today’s standards, confronted by the disconcerting God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And it is her humanity that is key in our celebration today. As the poet says:
“Of Her Flesh, he took flesh.”
It is from Mary that Jesus gains his humanity. It is through Mary that he enters the world. Our humanity is what we have in common with Mary. It is in our common human condition, shared by both, that we come to have Mary as our sister and Jesus as our brother. To put it differently, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us it is from Mary that the Logos receives flesh, and the Incarnate Word first dwells in her. It is a long while until the child is born, and we are confronted with the idea of being with Mary as we contemplate the child growing with in her. There is no room here for a porcelain figure or alabaster statue. All through out the rest of her life she must live with and meditate upon the words of the Angel, even when they make no since. Life would not be easy for the Mother of God. She must live with a son given to terrific acts of power and who dies the death of a thief or bandit. She is one of the models of contemplation, not because we know that she is given to it, but because she is caught up in the Mysteries in a way that no one else is. She is an active participant in them. When she looks down at the child in the feeding trough she comes into the realization that “This is my body, this is my blood.” We do her, and ourselves, a disservice when we make her into a semi-divine Queen at the expense of her history and reality as a human being.
My Carmelite bias may be showing. For us Mary is our sister. After all she appeared to St. Simon Stock in Aylesford wearing our Habit. It is her Humanity in which we first find our devotion to her. If our King reigns from a manger and cross, his Mother is just that, a mother. As the legend under the image of Our Lady of Mt Carmel at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception says, “Mary is more Mother than Queen.” In may ways several of the later Marian devotions and doctrines run counter to the Carmelite Spirit of her as our Mother and Sister. I would go so far as to say that dogmatic proclamations aimed at cleaning up our discomfort at Mary being a normal person with a body like ours, and the implications that holds for Jesus plays runs counter not only to the Spirit of Carmel, but of Anglicanism. She is our friend, and she prays for us. She is our Mother, and loves us. She is our Sister and supports us.
What I would leave us with today is a call to join with Mary in her pondering and meditation. As she felt the child grow within her womb, let us feel the risen Christ in our selves. Let us contemplate with her the words of the Angel and what they mean for us. Let us enter into the mysteries with her as a signpost and guide. Finally, let us commend ourselves to her in prayer, so that at the last she may show us the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus.
Pray for us, Oh Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.