Sermon in CR Chapel Advent IV. 18 December 2011
The subject of today’s gospel, the Annunciation to Mary, has attracted great artists down the centuries. When we look at some of them, or imagine the scene for ourselves, the dominant message for us is one of obedience. Mary, it appears, responds at once to the angel’s message, with a simple but profound acceptance.
For us who follow Jesus, obedience is considered a fundamental ingredient of our discipleship. Looking at the usual paintings of the subject, we might assume that our obedience should also be immediate and positive. If God seeks some task from us then we should, at once, do what he asks.
This immediate kind of response to the call of Jesus is plainly expressed in the Gospel. He says to Peter and Andrew “Follow me” and at once the two leave their nets in the boat and follow him.
However, is this model of obedience (one that is like a military command) the only one? Of course, in a battle - or in the case of a fire - immediate action is required; to delay would be dangerous! It has to be acknowledged that for generations of religious in the past, this was the only model of obedience. Unhesitant, unreflective response was what was required. A novice had to learn how to say “yes” first and then think about it later. We might benefit today from another understanding of obedience.
In 1966 a fresco of the Annunciation was being restored in a small chapel south-west of Siena. As I understand it, the way a fresco is executed takes two stages. At first the artist sketches a drawing on the wet plaster. When the plaster has dried, the second stage is a painting which obscures the original drawing. In this case during the conservation of the fresco, a remarkable discovery was made. Underneath the finished painting, which depicts Mary in a traditional attitude of humility and submission, was found the original sketch – presumably by a different artist. This drawing showed Mary with her back to the angel, cowering in a corner, clutching a pillar. She glances back over her shoulder with a look of fear.
Strange to say this unconventional drawing harmonises with an oral tradition about the Annunciation in Nazareth itself.
I discovered that there are two sites attributed to this event. One is an Orthodox chapel, built over the village well; the other, where Mary is believed to have lived. The reason for this is that the angel Gabriel had to deliver his message twice. The first time, at the well, Mary was so frightened that she ran home. Gabriel has to follow her and deliver the announcement a second time - when, by the grace of God, Mary had recovered herself enough to give her simple “yes” to Gabriel.
This rather quaint account of events does reflect what we read in St Luke’s account, “Mary was greatly troubled by the angel.”
This model of obedience allows a space in time for the overwhelming message to be reflected upon, prayed over and finally accepted.
Isn’t this one our experience when we are bidden to respond to what God asks of us? We do not always respond with a military immediacy. We pass through a process of allowing every part of ourselves to take into account what it all means. We cannot have the small print of the future but we want to respond with the whole of our being, rather than an instantaneous response. We reflect and we pray – we face the question, even the desire, to say “No THANK YOU.”
Jesus left us a parable illustrating this model of obedience. A father had two sons. He asked the one to do a piece of work. He said yes but didn’t do it. The second, at first said NO but later did what his father asked. Jesus pointed out that it was the second who was obedient.
If we need any further evidence that obedience can be a process, sometimes of struggle and uncertainty, we need only look at Jesus himself in the garden of Gethsemane. Shaking with the sweat of fear, he asks for the removal of it all. Yet despite the wrestling with sheer terror, he says, “Thy will be done.”
So, our obedience may take the same pattern – when with the space of grace we can at the end give a whole-hearted response. It is as if, sometimes, our final yes has swallowed up our NO.
The secret behind all of this is that God never asks of us anything that is beyond our strength, something which at first does seem almost impossible. His grace is enough for us, whatever he asks. He allows us the space in which we learn to discover that grace – so that we too, with Mary, may say “Let it be according to your word.”
Simon Holden CR