Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary 2012
26 March 2012 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The feast of the Annunciation of the Lord comes as something of a surprise most years, falling as it so often does either just before or just after Easter. This year it is already Passiontide. We are only eleven days away from Good Friday. So the beginning of the birth narrative from St Luke’s Gospel comes now as something of a shock. Christmas and Easter we think should be separate. They have quite different feels, tell different stories. Christmas with its story of a birth is so lovely, so appealing. Holy Week and Easter with its story of a death and its mysterious story of a rising from the dead, though the more profound, has the power to unnerve us, to remind us of what we might rather forget. We easily shy away.
And yet, here we are, so near Holy Week, hearing the story of Mary and the angel Gabriel. Of course we know that the Annunciation, the moment of the conception of our Lord Jesus Christ in the womb of his mother Mary, must be nine months before Christmas. Still, it seems strange. Frankly, it should not. The two great poles of Christian thought represented by Christmas and Easter, on the one hand the incarnation of the Son of God and on the other the atonement, the redemption of the world through his death and resurrection, depend absolutely on each other. If the Word of God had been born into flesh simply to teach a little and gather some disciples, we should never have known about him; just another wild ranter, or at best a false prophet, he would have faded completely from history within a few months or at most years of his birth. And to understand the incarnation aright is essential for the redemption to be seen clearly. Without what happened at Christmas being seen in its true light, the full meaning of Good Friday and Easter is obscured. So this feast prompts a question. Who is this Jesus Christ we shall be seeing on the Cross next week? What is his nature?
For several centuries after Christ, Christians struggled to understand. Of course, we still do, since these issues are so far beyond anything we would normally be able to grasp. But at least we have the good fortune that our forebears have thought and indeed argued about the questions before us. The bishops and theologians of the Early Church grappled with the question what the story of Jesus said about God, agreeing in the end, during the 4th century after Christ, that God is a Holy Trinity, one God and three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That belief came to be agreed at a Council of Bishops at Nicaea representing the universal Church in the year 325. We shall be reciting the fruits of their agreement, together with their conclusions at the Council of Constantinople in 381, in a few moments when we say together what is properly called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Once they had begun to be clear about God as Holy Trinity, the bishops and theologians of the Early Church went on to think about the nature of Christ. If Jesus Christ is God, does that mean that he is entirely God in his nature but walking around in a human body, in human form? Or rather, does Jesus Christ have two natures, human and divine, in other words does he have a human mind and imagination and even limitations as well as a human body? And then how does the divine nature sit with the human nature? Do they coexist, the one as it were beside the other, and how far do they interact? Are the human and divine natures in some way mixed or mingled in Jesus Christ? Although the bishops continued to think and to argue, it was only in the middle of the 5th century, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, that they concluded that our Lord Jesus Christ does have two natures, that he is fully human, with a human mind and emotions as well as a human body, as well as being fully divine. They spoke of “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union.”
One of the most influential voices in the 4th century, a voice that prepared the way for that conclusion, was that of St Gregory Nazianzen. Gregory has been a popular name in Christian history. We have a particular connection with a Gregory, a Pope, called the Great, who sent St Augustine to convert the English. But that was later. This Gregory came from Nazianzus in Cappadocia in modern Turkey. He became a bishop and for a time patriarch of Constantinople but he was happiest thinking and writing. Some of his letters and sermons survive.
In one of his sermons he speaks of the mystery of the incarnation, the coming into flesh of the eternal Word of God, in which “He who is comes to be; the uncreated is created, the unconfinable confined.” St Gregory sees how this makes a fundamental difference to us and other human beings. “He who enriches becomes poor: he takes upon himself the poverty of my flesh so that I may receive the riches of his divinity. He who is full is emptied: he is emptied of his own glory for a little while, that I may share in his fullness. What a wealth of goodness! What a mystery is this concerned with me!”
The early Fathers’ theology was profoundly related to the scriptural witness and to the teaching of bishops and theologians before them. Here we can see that Gregory has been reflecting on the words of St Paul in his letter to the Philippians,
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.” [Philippians 2: 5-11]
Probably the most influential sentence in the writing of St Gregory Nazianzen, and the most often quoted, came in one of his letters. It shows us directly how and why the doctrine of the incarnation and of the atonement are profoundly related. Gregory puts his understanding of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ directly at the service of his understanding of what was achieved on the Cross, the redemption of the world. In his native Greek, the words have a quite beautiful simplicity: “to aproslepton atherapeuton.” “What was not assumed was not healed.” He goes on, “What is saved is that which has been united with God.” What he means is that God has united with himself in the one Lord Jesus Christ our whole human nature, our body and mind, our soul. That human nature suffers and dies on the cross and is raised from the dead. Thus our whole human nature is capable of salvation, our body mind and spirit.
Today we recall the angel Gabriel’s word to Mary and Mary’s faithful response, Be it unto me according to thy word. At that moment we believe, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son of God, the Word and Wisdom of God, was united in the womb of Mary with human flesh, human soul and mind to form the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Virgin Mary became the Mother of God and our humanity was seen to be capable of unity with God. To quote St Gregory again, “He takes upon himself the poverty of my flesh so that I may receive the riches of his divinity” – incarnation and redemption together. His suffering was real. His death was real. Even his sense of separation, God the Son from God the Father, was real – the greatest agony. Our salvation cost him not less than everything.