Dear friends in Christ: if I did my math right, there are only 275 shopping days left until Christmas…. You’d better get on it, if you want the good deals… The Christmas shopping seasons seem to begin earlier and earlier. But before Easter? That’s ridiculous.
Let’s do the math another way: Christmas is nine months away. Now maybe you have a sense of what I am up to here. Today, March 25, is the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord, the day when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
So, no, I am not a retailer’s marketing front man. Rather, I simply remind you that today is the traditional date marking the beginning of Mary’s pregnancy. And nine months from today will be Christmas, the human birth of the one whom we call God and Lord.
But it’s also the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. Then we have Holy Week and finally Easter. Annunciation falling on a Sunday in Lent so close to the Christian high holy days, is a great confluence, a great coming together, not unlike the Age of Aquarius (now that dates me), when the planets line up to usher in a new age.
Today’s coinciding or lining up of liturgical days helps us to see the big picture and makes the point that you cannot really understand the meanings of Christmas without Holy Week. Nor can you understand Holy Week without Christmas.
In order to assist us in seeing the connections between the events associated with Jesus’ birth and those associated with his death, let’s take a little art historical journey. A picture is worth a thousand words.
You have in your worship folders a depiction of one panel of the famous Annunciation Triptych that appears at the Cloisters Museum here in Manhattan. How many have been to the Cloisters to see this?
This is from the Merode altarpiece from 15th Century Netherlands and the workshop of Robert Campin. It’s a spectacular piece of art located in a room at the Cloisters that is furnished like the painting.
At any rate the detail really helps to elucidate the link between Christmas themes and Holy Week themes:
· What is depicted here is the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce the news of her miraculous and divinely-sourced pregnancy. So you have Mary and the Angel in a very ordinary, domestic setting
· But notice the flowers on the table in the center of the painting; they’re lilies, suggestive of Mary’s virginal purity, but also having associations with Easter
· Notice also in the upper left hand corner area the little figure with the cross flying down into the room, carried on rays of light: some suggest that this is the Christ child already carrying his cross
· Then look at the candle on the table and see that the candle’s flame has just gone out, indicated by the wisps of smoke rising from the wick -- some say that this may be suggestive of the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing out the candle, but also that the divine life was extinguished at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross
All of this is to say that the ultimate purpose of Jesus being born to Mary, the aim of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, is so that the very Son of God could finally go to the cross to be offered there for our sake and then be raised again.
In other words, Christmas (the pregnancy, the birth) makes Holy Week and Easter possible. We cannot have one without the other. And if it weren’t for the death and resurrection, we wouldn’t have any reason to remember Jesus and thus to celebrate Christmas. It’s all linked together. All the planets of the liturgical high holy days line up.
As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel reading: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’”
This hour, meaning his death, was his reason for life in the first place.
Or to put it in the words of a stanza of the beloved Christmas carol, “What Child is This?”:
“Why lies he in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you; hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!”
The details in the print of the painting you have before you convey this visually: again, a picture is worth a thousand words.
All right. That’s all very interesting and if not interesting, then pedantic and academic (I cannot help myself since I still do some teaching as a professor in seminary). But so what? What does all this mean for us in our day? What does the Annunciation have to do with our own journey of faith?
One of the meanings of the Annunciation and of Mary’s role and of the Incarnation in the first place is that we, too, are called upon to embody God’s Word and to give birth to it in our daily lives.
But how does this happen? Or to echo Mary’s own words at the Annunciation: “How can this be?” Let’s go back to the Annunciation painting to get our clues:
· Again, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in a very ordinary, domestic setting, suggesting God’s entry into our ordinary lives. If it could happen to Mary, it could happen to us, right in our own homes and daily routines.
· Art historians suggest that this painting depicts the moments before the angel’s announcement to Mary -- hence she doesn’t seem to notice
· But I like to think of it another way: notice that Mary is engrossed in reading, and there’s another book on the table next to her, suggesting two volumes of sacred scripture, Old Testament and New Testament
· I like to think that her studied reading is prayerful devotion (many other depictions of the Annunciation show Mary at prayer)
· This suggests that the angelic visitation really centers on the act of devotional reading
· That is to say: Mary’s becoming pregnant with the Word made flesh happens through her own engagement with the scriptural word in the power of the Holy Spirit. As if to say, in this version, the Holy Spirit is using the scripture to make the announcement and to commence the pregnancy.
· This is in keeping with themes of today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”
· This inner illumination, of the Word written on the heart, is suggested by the star-shaped light or radiance emanating from the region of Mary’s womb
· Notice the trajectory: there’s a line from the baby Jesus carrying cross with God’s rays of light through the angel Gabriel, through the lilies and candle, through Mary’s face focused on the book, going down then from the book into her inner being, where her womb region is illuminated
This is what can happen to us when we so engage God’s Word that we take it into ourselves and in a sense become that Word and convey that Word, maybe even birth that Word in our own speech and deeds.
And, of course, one of the great arenas for our dwelling with God’s Word is worship, what we’re doing right now.
Art historians suggest that this painting also conveys liturgical sensibilities:
· The angel Gabriel is dressed as a Deacon, in a flowing robe suggestive of an alb and wearing a Deacon’s stole across the shoulder
· Like Deacons who read the Gospel on Sunday mornings, the angel is proclaiming the Gospel to Mary
· Mary takes all of this in, a Word made flesh, carrying sacramental overtones.
· Eucharistic themes are reinforced in the right panel of the triptych which is not depicted here, but it shows Joseph in his carpenter’s shop making a wine press, suggestive of the wine used at the Eucharist.
All of this is to say that worship, what we do on Sundays, makes us pregnant with God Word. If today is the day when Mary got pregnant with God’s Word, it’s our day, too, when we also receive an angelic visitation in Word and in Sacrament carried on the power of the Holy Spirit.
So here’s my prayer for you: that God’s Word would so enter you in worship that you become pregnant with good news, that nine months from now (or sooner -- our gestation period need not be a full nine months) you would birth that Word in your very lives in your speech and in your deeds.
Think of it: if we Christians here and throughout the world could consistently carry in our very bodies the good news of the saving death and resurrection of Christ, walking the walk and not just talking the talk, living the good news not only with our lips but with our lives, what a great Christmas gift that would be to our troubled world. And not just on Christmas Day but every day.