Monday, March 31, 2008

Annunciation


April 1, 2008
Riverview Chapel
Fargo

Luke 1.26-38

Today is the transferred feast of the Annunciation. Normally we celebrate this “conception of Jesus” on March 25. But because March 25 fell on the Tuesday of Easter week, we have transferred the feast day to today. The feast of the Annunciation is an important feast in the Church. Of course, it means that nine months later to the day, we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

But, in the early Church, the feast of the Ascension was a dual feast. It was the date on which the Church celebrated not only Jesus’ conception, but also the date of his death. The belief was that Jesus essentially died on the anniversary of his conception. In fact, one of the great early Fathers of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, wrote:

"…Our Lord was conceived on…the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on the day he was conceived, on the same day he suffered."
(De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu Christi et iohannis baptistae)

So, it was believed that, on this feast of the Annunciation, we commemorated not only the day Jesus became flesh, but also the day he died.

Now, of course, we no longer observe the feast of the Annunciation in such a way. We observe Jesus’ death on Good Friday and we commemorate Jesus’ conception nine months before we commemorate his Birth.

The fact is, this is a very important day because today is the day when we can meditate on the fact that God, in a very real sense, took on flesh. It was on this day that God came to us and appeared to us not as God did in the Old Testament, with storms, with pillars of fire and clouds, with fire, or in burning bushes. Today we find God coming to us in a way we as humans could not even imagine God coming to us— We find God coming to us as one of us, with flesh like our flesh, with blood like our blood. This sentiment is probably best summarized in a wonderful hymn for this day from the Eastern Orthodox church, with these lyrics:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, O Full of Grace, :The Lord is with You!

On this feast we celebrate the day on which the archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary.

There is a wonderful painting of the Annunication by artist John Collier. In the painting, we see Mary as a young girl—a teenger—in 1950s suburbia. She is wearing a blue dress, saddle shoes and she is reading a Bible—the propehcy in Isaiah about how a Virgin will conceive and bear a son. The angel looks just the angel we imagine—winged, white robed. What the painting reminds us is that Mary was, more likely than not, a very young girl.

She was, it is belived, maybe 14 years old. When we think of it, it must’ve been an incredible moment. This poor fourteen year old girl is met by an angel, who tells her something incredible. She, a virgin, will bear a child. But not just any child. She will bear the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Son of God. She will bear, within her flesh, God—God-made-flesh.

And, faced with this fact, faced with this incredible mission, Mary answers simply,”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” In other words, she says, “Yes” to the angel. And that “Yes” changes everything.

Because of that yes, Mary opens a door that allows Jesus to come to us. Without Mary, Jesus would not have been able to come to us at all. She literally bore Jesus to us.

In the Greek Orthodox Church, Mary is called the Theotokos, or God-bearer. And she really is. If we believe Jesus is God, then she did, in a very real sense of the word, bear God. Through her, God came to us in the person of Jesus. She was the Mother of God, as hard as it might be to wrap our minds around that phrase.

We all know that Roman Catholics pay special homage and respect to the Virgin Mary. But the fact remains that Mary needs to be honored by all of us who call ourselves Christians. I once preached about Mary at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church here in Fargo. In that sermon I asked the question: what do Lutherans believe about the Virgin Mary? I then proceeded to quote what one very prominent Lutheran said about Mary:

"men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her 'Theotokos'. No one can say anything greater of her or to her, though he had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees, or grass in the fields, or stars in the sky, or sand by the sea. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God."

Most of the Lutherans there that morning were shocked to learn that that quote came from none other than Martin Luther himself.

I think a lot of good Lutherans would be shocked to know that many of the early founders of the Lutheran church had a deep affection for Mary. For example, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutherans testify that

blessed Mary prays for the church

Now listen to that. Blessed Mary prays for the church. That’s a present tense verb. She prays. Right now. Those Lutherans truly believed that Mary was in heaven at that particular moment praying for the church. The Apology goes on to state that Mary

is worthy of the highest honors
and desires
to have her example considered and followed

So, the founders of the Lutheran Church held her in high esteem. They commended her as example. Certainly, Lutherans and Roman Catholics will never agree on everything regarding Mary. I doubt that there will be statues of Mary in Lutheran churches and I don’t think praying the Rosary will become a popular pastime among Lutherans in the near future.

For Episcopalians such as myself—that strange, often stereotyped and even more often misunderstood breed of Episcopalians called Anglo-Catholics—we see a Church without due reverence for Mary to be a pretty bleak place. At my seminary—Nashotah House—which is the Anglo-Catholic seminary in the Episcopal Church—the bell there—affectionately called Michael—rings three times a day. At those times, the campus pauses to pray the Angelus or to pray the Hail Mary. The chapel is called the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin and a beautiful dark wooden statue of her is a in a place of central prominence above the main altar. In many Episcopal churches I’ve visited, there are statues or paintings of Mary. There are side altars—so-called “Mary Altars”—in their churches. I even know of many Episcopalians—including yours truly—who pray the Rosary on a regular basis. So, as you can see, we Episcopalians do honor Mary greatly and we love her dearly.

I hope that reclaiming Mary’s role in the life of our salvation will become more and more of a part of all Christians, not just Roman Catholics. After all, she is, without a doubt, a vital person in our Church and in who we are as Christians. Certainly Mary continues to be a great example to all of us—especially for what she did and said in today’s Gospel reading.

Just as Mary said “Yes” to the angel when he brought her his good news, we too can say yes to God and, in saying yes, we can bear God within us, as she did. We too can be theotokos—God-bearers. Like Mary we can be bearers of God to the world, to those who need God and long for God. We too can carry Christ into the world and let him be known through us. As Jesus found in her his first earthly dwelling-place so, following Mary’s example, he can continue to dwell on earth within each and every one of us as well.

Let us pray.

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.

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