The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 25th March 2007
On a hot busy summer's day in Florence, I remember the exquisite cool and calm of the Museo di San Marco, the 15th century Dominican monastery, blessed in almost every room with frescos by Fra Angelico. I stood before his depiction of the Annunciation. If you don't know the work itself, there are almost certainly other Annunciations you do know. A useful Hungarian website lists over 240 paintings of the Annunciation, almost all from the 15th or 16th centuries. It was a popular subject. There are more surviving pictures of the Annunciation than there are of the Nativity or of the Crucifixion.
They all have a family likeness. Mary is demure and young, in her room, perhaps at prayer or study. She has been disturbed by the arrival of the archangel, who sometimes kneels, sometimes stands, sometimes hovers above the ground. Often the archangel gestures. Sometimes Mary herself gestures, warding off the shock, or open handed, but most often pointing to herself in a modest manner. In some the Holy Spirit as a dove descends from the heavens, occasionally making a bee-line for the Virgin's womb or, as in the case of a Piero della Francesco in Arrezzo, even launched by God the Father, top left.
But, back to Florence and the Fra Angelico, so cool and calm, but the air disturbed by the arrival of the archangel. As I stood looking at the familiar picture, which seems to take for granted Mary's acquiescence in God's plan, I wondered whether Mary could have said "No". And what would have happened.
In St Luke's account of the event, which we have just heard, the archangel Gabriel also at first seems to take Mary's Yes for granted. "Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive." But then Mary questions. She wants to know how this might happen. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Only when satisfied with the explanation that nothing will be impossible with God, she says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." This Yes of cosmic significance unlocks the gate to the world's salvation. Mary conceives and will bear a Son, whose name will be Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.
So significant was this moment that the Church over the centuries has found it hard to imagine that Mary might have said Yes without God's special help. The Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary suggests that it was only because she was preserved from original sin and therefore able to live impeccably that Mary was able to make this life-changing - world-changing - decision. Whether preserved or not from original sin, the archangel in saying "Greetings, favoured one!" recognised Mary as full of grace, of God's special help.
Mary shares our human condition and character. Mary's Yes encourages us to say Yes to God. Her Yes makes it all the more important for us to reflect what might be the impact of our oft-repeated rejection of God's will and plan for us, our frequent No. For this feast reminds us of St Augustine's words 1700 years ago: "Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not." God's action in the world is above all through the agency or instrumentality of human beings, weak, selfish and sinful though we are.
If we listen for the voice of the Lord, and grow accustomed to paying attention to his Word - often that still, small voice in the midst of the world's noise - we can just as surely do his will, who knows with what impact. The archangel is unlikely to surprise us in our daily life quite in the way the old pictures show him disturbing Mary's quiet routine. But God's grace and love can be just as powerful in our lives as in hers.
Full of grace, Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord." We say with her "I have come to do your will, O God"? Mary's Yes made her the bearer of God's Son, the Word of God. Our Yes makes us also bearers of the Word of God.