Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Angel of the Annunciation; the Angel of the Resurrection

Preached as a sermon at the Sung Eucharist for the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, 10th April, 2018 at Guildford Cathedral.

The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Alleluia.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Annunciation to Mary 
The arrival of Gabriel - whose name means ‘God is my strength’ - begins an encounter between the archangel and Mary that we know as the Annunciation, the announcement of the Incarnation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

‘God is my strength’ could also be Mary’s motto as she says ‘yes’ to taking on a way of potential shame and ignominy and yet a way of willing response to the Creator God, her maker and redeemer, and ours too, drawing strength from the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid’ (Luke 1.30).

What Gabriel announces is the Incarnation in hidden form; the Eternal Word of God dwells deep in the womb of Mary gestating.

What Gabriel and the multitude of the heavenly host proclaim in nine months’ time is the birth of the Eternal Word, now unhidden, so that we proclaim, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth’ (cf Luke 2.8-14 and John 1.14, ).

Today inaugurates the Incarnation of the Word and shapes the lines of the Nicene Creed speaking of Christ, for which customarily one bows because of its enormity:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.

We bow down to the Divine Name, at which name ‘every knee should bend’ (Philippians 2.10), who nestles in his mother’s womb, as one of us, and yet is also ‘eternally begotten of the Father’ (Nicene Creed).

The Annunciation of the Lord to Mary is the definitive encounter between a human being and God and the exemplar of how to respond.

Mary has been called Mother of the Church, because where Mary is found in the Gospels is where the whole Church - you and I - is called to be.

In the Holy Gospels Mary is found pointing others to Christ: ‘do whatever he tells you’ she says (John 2.5); Mary stands patiently at the foot of his cross, with the Beloved Disciple (John 19.25b-27), the foundational relationship of fellowship and love in the Church; Mary waits attentively and expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, her prayer, with them, shaping the nine days of intercession between Ascension Day and Pentecost (Acts of the Apostles 1.14); and in The Revelation to John Mary, identified with the Church, is the woman clothed in the sun, pregnant and bringing a child to birth (Revelation 12.1-6).

Where Mary is - in proximity to Christ - we are called to be.

Also the manner of her open and active response to Gabriel is one the whole Church – you and I –are called to make, so that the power of the Most High will overshadow the Church to grow into the image and likeness of Christ.

This prompts us to prayer and, with Mary, to ponder these things in our hearts (cf Luke 2.19; 2.51).

Each day the bell of this Cathedral Church rings out before morning and evening prayer in a pattern known as the Angelus. It heralds a prayer that uses the Annunciation encounter as its model. The first words of the prayer, Angelus domini in Latin, recall the angel of the Lord coming to Mary and her conception by the Holy Spirit.

The Angelus continues by focusing on Mary’s obedient response, in spite of the cost, ‘let be unto me according to your word’; and then moves to the heart of the matter: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The prayer is interspersed with the Hail Mary, which is a fusion of Gabriel’s salutation, and Elizabeth’s declaration, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus’ (Luke 1.28, 42).

This young woman, of which prophets speak, who will bear Emmanuel – God with us – receives, through Gabriel, strength from on high: ‘God is my strength’.

On this day of the Annunciation the Church prays to know that ‘God is my strength’.

We pray that we may respond to the Lord after the example of Mary, so that the way in which Mary responds shapes and prompts our own response to God, as a Church and as persons baptised in his Name.

We do this to the end that Christ gestates within us and that we bring Christ to birth in the world. This is the task of the Church. This is about an intense knowing of who Christ is - Incarnate, Crucified, Risen and Ascended - who prays for us at the right hand of the Father.

God calls: and the Holy Spirit makes possible what is to be.

The proper date of celebrating the Annunciation is 25th March, exactly nine months before Christmas, the length of a pregnancy. This year it fell on Palm Sunday so is transferred to today, following Easter Week.

It is not every year, then, that the Annunciation falls in Eastertide; so this year we can reflect too on the presence of the Angel of the Resurrection. At the empty tomb it is an angelic presence that declares Do not be afraid: he is risen (cf Matthew 28.5-6; Mark 16.5; Luke 24.4-6; John 20.12).

Can we, as a Church, draw to courage, heart and strength from that angelic declaration? We are successors of the first witnesses of the resurrection; heirs too of the promise of the archangel to Mary. We worship with angels and archangels, with Mary, apostles, martyrs and all the company of heaven.

The angel has left the doorway of the empty tomb to point out Christ in the world; in places of darkness and despair, in places of celebration and rejoicing, indeed throughout the cosmos, the whole created order.

And the challenge is to see him in bread and wine, in his holy word, in one another, in the broken, disfigured and unlovely. This is what the Annunciation unleashes, seeing Christ - Incarnate, Crucified, Risen and Ascended - in all things and all people: for he is ‘all in all’ (Ephesians 1.23; Colossians 1.17)

Tonight in this sacrament we receive Christ into the depths of our lives, his body absorbed into our bodies, nestling deep within us. Every time we receive the Body of Christ, we are receiving what Mary received through the message the angel brought: Christ gestating within us, so that we come to share the intimate knowing of Christ that blessed her life.

The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Alleluia.

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