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Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on The Annunciation of our Lord: Thursday 25 March 2010

25 March 2010 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Reading: Luke 1: 26-38

Thirty years ago, on 24th March, in a hospital chapel in the small central American country of El Salvador, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, while he was at the altar celebrating Mass, was shot dead by an assassin, with the probable complicity of the government. Eighteen years later, his carved image was to be added to the west front of this Abbey Church as one of ten 20th century martyrs. This coming Sunday evening, in a service attended by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, together with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and his predecessor Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, and in the presence of the ambassador from El Salvador to the Court of St James, we shall give thanks to God for the life and witness of Oscar Romero and lay a wreath at the foot of his statue.

Thirty years ago, on this feast of the Annunciation of our Lord, Robert Runcie was enthroned in his Cathedral as the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England. The ceremony, though magnificent and memorable, was overshadowed by the remarkable horror of that assassination the day before, which was in the mind of all those who witnessed the service.

Today’s feast occurring in Passiontide is similarly overshadowed. The feast of the Annunciation on 25th March celebrates the moment at which the Virgin Mary, visited by the angel Gabriel, accepted God’s invitation to be the mother of his Son. Nine months later, on 25th December of course, we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, we could say that the Annunciation begins the Christmas cycle of celebrations in the Church’s Year.

And yet, we are in Passiontide. We approach the most Holy Week of the Church’s Year and the high point of the Easter cycle. Our minds are fixed not on the Incarnation but on the Redemption of the world through the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The interweaving of sorrow with gladness, celebration with mourning, though it adds to the complexity, is not unfamiliar in people’s lives. A death in the family on Christmas Day, the birth of a child a few days after the death of a grandparent, these are not unknown events, even perhaps in our own lives. The power to shock is greater, as with the Asian tsunami that killed so many people on Boxing Day 2004, but so is the opportunity to face the reality that in the midst of life we are in death. The interweaving reflected in the memory of the assassination of one Archbishop hanging over the celebration of the enthronement of another, or the celebration of the feast of the Annunciation during Passiontide is powerful and fruitful for the deepening of our spiritual pilgrimage.

Not long ago I heard an Anglican head of an academic institution give an account of the Catholic faith that underpinned the institution he led. He spoke of his belief in a creative God who made all things well, of the beauty of the incarnation through which God shares our human nature, of the sacraments through which God reaches out and comes close to us. He saw the implications in terms of learning and discovery, of science and technology, of engagement with the world. All this seemed good but it all reflected what could be called the creation/incarnation cycle. I heard nothing of human sin and its consequences, of the need for repentance and transformation, of the suffering and death of our Lord or of the glory of the resurrection. The cycle of Lent, Holy Week and Easter seemed to me entirely set aside. This is not altogether unfamiliar. The differences reflected in the Catholic and Evangelical points of view in the Church of England have been described in terms of whether the interpretative weight is placed on the Christmas cycle of creation and incarnation or on the Easter cycle of sin and redemption.

To put it at its most extreme, Evangelical views appear to be that, as a result of the Fall, the whole of humanity is automatically bound by sin and by human nature itself condemned to eternal perdition without the intervention of a Redeemer, and liberal Catholic views appear to be that, since the whole creation is made and loved by God, anything of which human beings are capable is acceptable, so anything goes, let it all hang out. No doubt this is a caricature. But there is something to it.

The challenge offered by the occurrence of the feast of the Annunciation in Passiontide is to see both/and: both the beauty of the creation and the potential for compatibility through the incarnation of our human nature with God and the reality of human failure, of cruelty and viciousness, and the need for redemption and for a means of transforming the weakness and wilfulness of our selfish lives into the generous and life-giving love shown us in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Any so-called Christian theology that concentrates so strongly on the Christmas cycle that it sees nothing of the need for atonement between human beings and God focused in the Easter cycle, or that sees only the need for an Easter cycle and ignores the beautiful affirmation of the goodness of the creation and the human potential for compatibility with God reflected in the Christmas cycle must be in error.

We must hold together in our minds all the significance of Christmas and Easter. We may not celebrate the one and ignore the other. We must face the horror and cruelty of the world as well as its magnificence and beauty, the darkness and selfishness of our human nature as well as its potential for greatness and glory. Today, as we confront our separation from God, we see in prospect too his great act of atonement.

These words by the 16th century poet Robert Southwell are from his poem The Nativity of Christ:

O dying souls, behold your living spring;
O dazzled eyes, behold your sun of grace;
Dull ears, attend what word this Word doth bring;
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace.
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this Word, this joy repairs.

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