Sermon preached at the Sung Eucharist on the Annunciation of Our Lord 2024

If we can but bear it, we will see that all around are the fields of paradise.

The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle KCVO MBE Dean of Westminster

Monday, 8th April 2024 at 5.00 PM

Just outside Cambridge there is a village called Swaffham Prior. In the days when I was still wondering if I was supposed to be a priest, I used to have to visit Swaffham Prior. My director of ordinands was the vicar there. This was a parish in which there were two churches side by side because the village once was divided into different lordships. Beside one church, dedicated to St Cyriac and his mother St Julitta, a Scottish poet lies buried. He is called Edwin Muir and his early life is a rather sad story. He was born on a farm on the coast of the Mainland of Orkney in 1887. When he was 14, there was a financial crisis and his father lost the farm. The family moved to Glasgow and there, in pretty rapid succession, both his parents and two brothers died. He lived a poverty-stricken, miserable existence doing dreadful jobs. At one point he was in a factory that turned bones into charcoal. Years later, he looked back on leaving Orkney and described the islands as a kind of Eden. Muir felt as though he was born before the industrial revolution and was suddenly dropped into the midst of it. It was as if, in the two days it took to get to Glasgow, he had travelled through a hundred and fifty years. He got fixated on the passage of time and on finding a place that felt to be truly home.

I am telling you about Edwin Muir because today is the feast of the Annunciation. We have just heard St Luke tell the story of Gabriel greeting Mary and announcing the birth of a son.

Poor Edwin Muir, that very displaced poet, wrote one of the best poems about the Annunciation that I know. St Luke began his account,

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. Luke 1: 26

Muir began,

The angel and the girl are met.

There is something clever and considered going on here and it needs naming. When St Luke tells the story of the Annunciation, he is painting on a really big canvas. He is trying, if you like, to give us the whole picture. This is really not just a meeting of an angel and a girl. St Luke is writing about history and prophecy and the long purposes of God. He scatters little clues in his story that are meant to startle us into recognition. An angel arriving like this sounds a lot like the story of Samson. The greeting ‘The Lord is with thee’ is straight out of the story of Gideon, and Luke takes time to remind us that this girl is betrothed to a man of the House of David—the House of Kings. This, says Luke, thumping on a great drum, is the story to end all stories. This is the story of everything.

Then, in slips Edwin Muir, the man who dwelt in the shadows in Glasgow, but had once lived by the dazzle of the sea in Orkney. He narrows down the focus into something much more human, more personal—The angel and the girl are met.

The point is that there are different things to notice in the Annunciation; there are different accents in this story. If you go up the road to the National Gallery you can see a beautiful Annunciation painted by Fra Filippo Lippi in the middle of the fifteenth century. The angel kneels on flowers in a little enclosed garden. The girl sits directly before him on a stone platform outside her home. She does not look at him, her head and her eyes are lowered. He too bows slightly, but still he gazes at her. Look more closely and you will spot a tiny dove scattering gold dust as it spirals down towards Mary’s womb as the story reaches its climax. Lippi paints the angel and the girl, but, at the top is the picture, there is the hand of God—a both / and version of annunciation.

There was a Friar, a contemporary of Filippo Lippi, a Franciscan called Roberto Caracciolo. He was a preacher, a famous one (he knew it), he had a swagger on him. He used to explain to a rapt audience that the Annunciation happens in stages. The Virgin, he said, passed through five ‘Laudable Conditions’. First, there was Conturbatio—disquie  as she was troubled by the awesome greeting. Then Cogitatio—reflection as she wondered what this meant. Thirdly, Interrogatio—inquiry, she asks ‘How shall this be?’ Then, Humiliatio—submission ‘lowering her head’—that is the scene that Lippi painted. And finally, there was Meritatio—merit.

You see, the Annunciation really is a big story. Luke tells it like a big story. Painters paint a big story and preachers used to describe all the scenes and moods. It is history and prophecy and drama. It is salvation and it is glory. Another famous preacher, St Bernard of Clairvaux, imagined all creation waiting on what Mary will say in answer to the angel:

Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for.

Yet, says Muir, it is still just an angel and a girl. An angel and a girl staring at one another.

See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other's face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there

Remember Muir’s own sad story? how he felt out of time, in the wrong age? how he felt bereft, homeless? He pins his hope on this story and on this moment. He doesn’t think of Mary with her head bowed; he thinks of a long, steady mutual gaze. He thinks of the mad world, the world that he found so very difficult going on as usual, oblivious to what is happening in this room:

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day …

Sound's perpetual roundabout
Rolls its numbered octaves out
And hoarsely grinds its battered tune

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make.
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their grace would never break.

Muir knows (of course he knows) that this is great drama; this is a tipping point for salvation and hope. Yet, he insists that we notice that glory is also human. Grace does its gentle work and the girl—for she is just a girl—consents. God’s will does not overwhelm and overpower her, it bears her up and she accepts that offering, that responsibility. Salvation is not just possible in this story it happens and it is human. That’s what Muir learned over the years. The sorrow was never forgotten, but he learned to hope again and he began to find that the goodness of God was nearer than he had once known. He believed he had the strength to carry on. On his gravestone at Swaffham Prior are words that describe him well:

His unblinded eyes saw far and near the fields of paradise.

He saw what is in all its dirt and difficulty and he saw more. And he hoped. The significant thing about this day is perhaps not the miracle of God’s choosing, but the quiet authority of Mary’s assent: her fiat, her agreement. It is not that the angel came to her that matters, but that Mary believe and bore the hope and the pain that was to come. It is the miracle of grace and glory in a human life. It is the miracle that we depend on, the one that lifts us into all the possibility of what God will do with us.

The Annunciation, like Easter, is nothing less than the narrative of our redemption, but we must not forget that this divine mystery is also our story and that our very ordinary human lives can also be touched with grace. If we can but bear it, we will see that all around are the fields of paradise.