Sermon given at the Vigil Sung Eucharist for the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Start Date: 24th Mar 2015
Start Time: 17:00


The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Could Mary have said No?

We believe we all have free will, the power to decide for ourselves. We are not automata, robots, puppets on a string. God does not play with us, or dangle us for his pleasure or amusement. We have the freedom to choose. There may be determining features in our genetic make-up, or our circumstances, or up-bringing that do constrain us and limit us. But, unless we are undergoing extreme constraint or torture, we have room for manoeuvre, the power to choose. We must accept responsibility for our own actions. We cannot blame God or our make-up or our parents or our circumstances for the choices we make.

So, surely, Mary was entirely free to say No. We cannot imagine that she would. So the Church has tried over the centuries to explain why Mary had to say Yes. The Bible tells us nothing of her parentage or upbringing, but the Church long ago identified her mother as Anne and her father as Joachim and decided that they must themselves have been saints. And then some Christians began to believe and teach that God, in order to be sure of Mary's response, had protected her from the first moment of her conception from original sin. In 1854, Pope Pius IX declared it as a dogma, something to be believed by all those who acknowledged his authority, that Mary was immaculately conceived.

Even so, it is important that Mary could have said No. It certainly is important to us, when we think about ourselves and our own relationship with God. How often do we say No to God? Arewe even conscious that we do? And God does not impose himself on us or force us to follow him or to do his will. God prompts us, leads us, even cajoles us to greater love for God and for our neighbour. God uses the Church, the Word and Sacraments, our friends and families, our experiences, even our environment, and of course the promptings of the Holy Spirit, in gentle and subtle ways, sometimes in more startling and obvious ways. And how often we say No to him! We see it as our right, our freedom. We are human beings. We have the power to choose.

But there is a complication. There is a paradox. Jesus said to his disciples in his farewell discourse in the Upper Room, 'You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.' Jesus also said, 'Many are called but few are chosen.' St Paul also wrote at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians, 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who … chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.' How are we to understand this idea that God has chosen us from the beginning, pre-destined us to be his people? Does this mean that we do not really have the power to choose at all, that all the power, all the choice is with God and that our freedom to choose, which we regard as one of the particular characteristics of a human being, is illusory?

This is not easy. From our human perspective it is impossible to see clearly or to understand. We cannot see it from God's point of view. We do believe that God chose Mary to be the Mother of his only Son, to be the Mother of the Church. The Church uses the language of vocation, of being called, and many of us have a strong sense of having been called to the life and work we do in and beyond the Church.

Can we be chosen and still be free to choose? Perhaps we should take a wider perspective. We know that our lives are governed by seemingly inflexible rules of time and space. We cannot be in two places at once. And we might be able to think of ourselves in a different time frame from our own. We can look backwards and at least imagine forwards, often with more fear than excitement. But in truth, we are utterly bound by time. Although time can drag and time can speed up in our imaginations, the clock ticks inexorably on and will one day take us away. Time and space limit us, rule us. Even though the small and large screens put in front of us notions of time travel and speeding through unlimited space, we cannot at all imagine what life outside time or space would be like.

But God is not limited by time or space. Life beyond this life, eternal life with God, is outside time and space. That is why it makes sense to pray for the repose of the soul of King Richard III in 2015. From our point of view he died in 1485, 530 years ago. From the eternal perspective, from the point of view not governed by time, he is dying, as are Elizabeth I who died on this day in 1603 and archbishop Oscar Romero gunned down at the altar of a hospital chapel in San Salvador on this day in 1980 … dying and living eternally, as much now as then.

God holds all time in the palm of his hand. Just as the last two generations have been privileged as never before to see the earth from a camera on a satellite, such that we can see the world and the galaxy and at least part of the universe from an utterly different perspective from that of earlier generations, with the earth like a small ball in the sky, so God can see the whole of time, the whole of eternity, as one, and knows absolutely what free choices we shall all make. God surely can see the entire spectrum of time and every detail within it.

God does not control us, does not impose himself. But he does already know how in our freedom we shall respond to him. Even so surely he still loves us, still persists with us. In the gentlest possible way he proposes himself to us. We believe that no one is beyond the power of God's love. Jesus, born of Mary, Son of God, our human brother, our divine Master, died that allmight live, even those who have turned away from God, rejected him and live in despite of him. We have the potential to turn towards God, or to turn away from him, to choose good or evil, or, come to that, to choose neither, simply to bumble along in our own self-satisfaction.

And in Jesus surelyGod weeps at the terrible and destructive choices human beings make and in the damaging and sad choices each one of us makes. And in Jesus surely God weeps at the indifference of those who blow neither hot nor cold, who simply pass God by.

by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

When Jesus came to Golgotha
They hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet,
And made a Calvary.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns;
Red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham,
They simply passed Him by;
Theynever hurt a hair of Him,
They only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender,
And they would not give Him pain;
They only just passed down the street,
And left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, "Forgive them,
For they know not what they do."
And still it rainedthe winter rain
That drenched Him through and through.
The crowds went home and left the streets
Without a soul to see;
And Jesus crouched against a wall
And cried for Calvary.

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