A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2008
Christianity involves a meeting of time and eternity. That is the hook on which hangs just about everything we do. It is the key to understanding our sacraments, in which visible pieces of matter—bread, wine, water, oil—become not just the symbols but the conveyors of Spirit. It is true, too, of our worship. What you are experiencing right now is more than a meeting in time. It is deliberately and carefully designed to be a window through which we look at the divine and the divine beholds us. It is in fact what we say about ourselves, which might stretch believability beyond all reason: we say that we are “the Body of Christ,” and we mean that the Christian community is more than the sum total of the individuals who are members of it. We say that the eternal Christ dwells in us and we in him.
We Christians continue to tell the story (and in some cases believe it) that when the Eternal God breaks into time and we earth creatures open ourselves freely to encounter God, suddenly not only time is transcended but so are we. Certainly not in all the world, but in a good chunk of it that includes the society in which we live, people find that a daunting stretch to believe. True, we can suspend our rationalism long enough to read and enjoy the Hogwarts magic of Harry Potter. We can even make room in our world to dazzle little children with stories about tooth fairies. We go so far as to invest a considerable slice of the GNP in “the magic of Christmas” which is Santa Claus. But on the whole, many of us live in a world that carries with it a great sense of despair. We are easily disillusioned and quickly distrustful of anything that sounds too airy-fairy.
Luke’s telling of the Annunciation reminds us that at the very heart of our formative story sits Mystery. For him, it is a story which is a part of a larger narrative about the unqualified uniqueness of Jesus, special from his conception on. Luke’s Jesus flips the whole course of human history. As Mary’s song puts it, God has “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” That is the theme, Luke proclaims, of the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. None of this is put to a vote, let alone decided on the basis of whether people find it credible or not. Luke presents it as truth, and challenges us to sign on to the movement which still, in his day, was turning the world upside down. If we were to raise the objection, “Wait, Luke, please; we don’t get it; why this story about an annunciation, replete with angel and virgin?” Luke would likely respond, “I’m simply telling you the truth. What is important is not what you make of the angel, or the virgin, but what you make of Jesus.”
So here we have a story, like so many others in the Bible, that stretches post-modern people’s imaginations. We can accept, or dismiss, it as either helpful or unhelpful evidence that Jesus is uniquely important. Or we can step into the story and begin to ride its ripples out to the edges of our consciousness and beyond. What might happen if we chose that second alternative? Might we begin to see that the Mystery is something far past believing, but ultimately life-changing?
The English poet of the last century, Edwin Muir, came across something one day that might give us a clue of what this transcendent thing is about. Muir tells that while he was in Rome as Director of the British Council’s office, he stopped one day to observe a plaque on a house in the Via degli Artisti. He looked for a long time at the image representing the annunciation. An angel and a young girl, their bodies inclined towards each other, their knees bent as if they were overcome by love, ‘tutto tremante,’ gazed upon each other;…and that representation of a human love so intense that it could not reach further, seemed the perfect earthly symbol of the love that passes understanding.” Muir wrote a poem, “The Annunciation,” that grew out of the image he describes. It is about the coming together of time and eternity, the heavenly and the earthly, in a moment that sums up the whole of existence, while just yards away the world keeps going on, oblivious to the sublime encounter of God and humanity. Listen to lines from the poem:
The angel and the girl are met….
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the others’ face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there.…
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Yet the increasing rapture brings
So great a wonder that it makes
Each feather tremble on his wings.
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way…
But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make,
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.
This is not quite the biblical story, is it? And yet, it really is the biblical story, poured into a slightly modified image. It is the image of the human being sought out by a love powerful and strong that simply will not let go, a love that is wildly ravishing in its insistence, the love of a God who is totally fascinated with that God’s own creation. It is not incidental that Muir found his own life experience a witness to that love, his own marriage an example of it. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is not so far from the trembling that flesh feels for flesh in the deepening rapture in which two human beings stand unmasked to each other.
Yes. Mystery is taking us in two directions at once. It grounds us in our own human experience, in places like kitchens and bedrooms and cemeteries and hospitals, and in moments like forgiveness and love-making and burying the dead and nursing children and feeding the hungry. Simultaneously it transports us to realms that we have no words for and no pictures of, spaces we can only talk in the language of song or poetry, in phrases like “the bright immensities” and “the dayspring from on high.” Time and eternity meet like angel and girl on earth, “the only meeting place,” says Muir. And when they meet, suddenly everything is changed, as if a black-and-white world sprang at once into vibrant color.
What is the meaning of all this? It is tempting to say that we are charged, or at least invited, to be on the lookout for the divine messenger, coming in ordinary moments like birth or death or pain or happiness. And no doubt that is a good idea. We can take our cues from Mary, who through her simple acquiescence to the Spirit of God, becomes the vessel through which the whole cosmos is renewed—an image beautifully written on the icon which has been leading our Advent processions. But the message might be as well that no amount of preparation or openness either bids or forbids the holy approach of the angel to the girl, the coming of eternity into time. We cannot buy it nor rush it nor plan for it nor avoid it. It just is. It happens when it will, sometimes to the most unlikely of people at the most inconvenient of moments.
But in a larger sense there is a response we can make to the Mystery, an action we can take, even a practice in which we can engage. And that is, as one of our best loved hymns puts it, we can “bow in humble adoration,” acknowledging that the Lord of Love liberates us from being trapped in our own limited time, with its familiar but ultimately inadequate categories where everything gets neatly pigeon-holed. The God that moves towards Mary with a message of gloriously impossible news is the God that is loose in your life this very minute, with the startling idea that you are an instrument of shockingly good things.
Stranger things have happened.
© Frank G. Dunn, 2008
permission not granted to print "The Annunciation" by Edwin Muir. See D. M. Allchin, The Joy of All Creation (Cowley, 1984), p. 130. Also P. H. Butter, ed. Selected Letters of Edwin Muir (London: Hogarth, 1974), p. 154.