Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

How do we imagine this scene, how do we picture it to ourselves?
Artists have been doing this for centuries of course. The Annunciation is one of the most widely depicted scenes in art, particularly in the Renaissance period. Mary is usually shown in an interior space, often a rather elegant room, perhaps with William Morris wall hangings and tasteful objets on the shelf and a potted plant on the window sill. She is usually seated, or kneeling in prayer, often holding a book, and in some paintings we can see what she is reading, the verse from Isaiah that says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”.
And into this scene comes the angel bursting with the heavenly message. The angel is all movement, urgency and flurrying wings, while Mary is shown still, quiet, and receptive.
But is that how it was? On one level, yes, because these paintings are symbolic. The interior space in which Mary is shown represents her own inner self, her contemplative attention to God’s word. The scene reminds us of the advice of Jesus on how to pray: go into your inner room and close the door, the inner room being our heart.
But these paintings are not historical. Western artists for many centuries had no access to the holy land, and painted the Holy Places in the guise of their own towns and streets. And that too has a symbolic meaning, for the incarnation is in and for this world, all of it, all places and times.
So, let us go back to Luke’s account of the Annunciation. What does he have to tell us about where Mary was and what she was doing, when the Angel came to her?
And the answer is, nothing. This is a bit of a surprise as just before in his Gospel Luke tells us about the angel visiting Zechariah to tell him that he would be the father of John the Baptist, and that scene is full of detail. But not the Annunciation to Mary. The angel’s message itself, and Mary’s response, are what we need to know.
We can however reimagine the scene of the Annunciation, if we go to Nazareth, where it happened.  At Nazareth there are two places, not just one, which are revered as sites connected with the Annunciation. And they are credible places, they would have been known to the first Christians and the knowledge passed down the generations.
The first site is a well, which today is in the crypt of a Greek Orthodox Church, but in the first Century it was in the open air, the only source of water for the people of the town. Here every day the women would come to fetch water. This was regarded as women’s work at the time, and was one of the first chores of the day. So we can be quite sure that Mary did come to this well. And the local tradition is that Mary was at the well drawing water when the angel appeared and greeted her: “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
Luke tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The local tradition is that she pondered this for some time, because the angel disappeared at that point, and Mary carried her water back home and went about the rest of the day’s tasks, all the while pondering, pondering.
The second site is a cave, now beneath the massive modern basilica of the Annunciation, but in the first century it was the cellar of a local home, like many others. The country is made of soft limestone and ordinary people’s homes consisted of one room above ground, and a rock cut cave beneath, where the stores were kept, the animals were kept at night, and the people slept in winter for the warmth.
The local tradition is that Mary was in this cave when the angel appeared to her again and completed his message, “‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”
Now this way of telling the story, in two places, makes sense of Luke’s narrative, and allows time for the “pondering” that Luke says Mary did between the two parts of the angel’s message. And of course it would have been in this cave that Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The tradition of the Church is that it was in that moment, as soon as Mary had given her consent, that she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Son of God became incarnate in her womb.
That cave was not a living room or a place where you would spend any time during the day. It was the cellar of the family home, where the grain and oil and food were kept. So what was Mary doing there? Well perhaps she had come down to fetch some ingredients, to prepare the family meal.
These two sites, the well and the food store, give us a different setting for the Annunciation. The angel comes to Mary as she is busy about her daily tasks, doing the chores, carrying water, fetching stuff from the cellar.
Outwardly this is different from the still, contemplative, interior space depicted by the artists. But inwardly there is no contradiction. Mary was busy about her daily tasks, yes. But at the same time she was attentive, recollected, her heart open to God, focused on his presence even as she went about her daily round.
It was in the middle of an ordinary day, amid the busyness of its ordinary tasks, that the angel came. Mary was not dismayed by the immensity of his message: God, the uncreated, the unconditioned, was emptying himself, touching history, entering creation, becoming a weak and vulnerable human being, there and then. Mary, entirely present in that moment, attentive with her whole being to the will of God, was able to say Yes in complete simplicity. And surely this is because she was already entirely attentive to God in the ordinary moment of the ordinary day. Because of that God was able to work his will for her and for us.
God is present, too, for us, in every moment of every day. His promises are sure, his mercy from age to age the same. The great Jesuit spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade talked about the “sacrament of the present moment”: God is entirely present in each moment as it presents itself to us, and that is where we are to be attentive to his will, which is our peace. Not tomorrow, not somewhere else. Not in an ideal world where stuff doesn’t happen, but here and now.
This is the meaning of Christmas – and Advent. God comes to the world as it is. The Word becomes flesh in the ordinary day of Nazareth. Nine months later he is born in the upheaval and chaos of Bethlehem, where a whole population had been forcibly relocated for a stupid bureaucratic exercise. God right there, amid everything that was going on.
And God right here, amid everything that is going on. The only place where we can seek God is this present moment where we actually are, with whatever it brings. It is futile to wish that we were somewhere else, the place perhaps where the washing machine has not broken down, or we do know how to make ends meet, or the person we love is not seriously ill. God is in the real, not the imaginary. He is in the present moment. Because whatever particular form it takes God’s will is always salvation and life and love for all the world. Heaven in earth is the meaning of the Incarnation. And that is not just for Christmas, but in every moment, with whatever it brings, here and now.

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