The Annunciation

Below is the text of my first homily, given for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

Annunciation – Caravaggio – 1608


Luke 1:26-38 – The Annunciation

‘In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slowly. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention, and in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’ – Pico Iyer (adapted)

Like most people, I used to think that life was about finding happiness. “We don’t mind what you do, son,” my parents would tell me, “as long as you are happy.” At that time I was actively seeking, and happiness was near the top of my list.

At one point, I accidentally stumbled on a secret piece of advice that I have forgotten many times, but try to remind myself of whenever I can. It is this: “I don’t care about happiness!” Now that might sound crazy, but when I honestly said that to myself for the first time what I was actually doing was letting go of the pursuit. It was then that I recognised that what I was seeking was already there, present within me. So it is with God.

Advent is the season of the exalted secret. Within the darkness and hiddenness of the womb is where all the excitement is going on.

In today’s reading, the Annunciation to Mary, the angel announces that God is reaching out to the world. God is extending His divine love into and through the barriers of arrogance, through our enviousness, desperation, and grief; through our possessiveness and confusion.

God has announced his intention to re-form His covenant with humanity, through the humility and faithfulness of this one young woman. This is not the beginning of the story, but it is a beginning; a beginning woven within Mary and her response to God’s call on her life. Today, the angel Gabriel announces news of the imminent beginnings of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Great as this news is, notice that it is not announced in triumphant fanfare for all to hear. It is whispered, in private, by an angel of God.

‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!’

We hear that Mary was perplexed at the way that she was greeted, and the angel said to her “Do not be afraid.” God’s call on our life can be frightening, it can be unsettling and we, in our confusion and need for control so often turn away, back to the patterns of behaviour so ingrained in us over so many years: Our familiar and misguided ways of being.

‘Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word’.

Mary’s response to God’s call on her life has been held up to us by the church as a model to follow in our own responses. One that is full of grace, and favoured by God. Through her example, we are led to a life of devotion, to God and to our neighbours who we are called to love.

The ‘Yes’ that Mary offered was not “Yes, I will do this”, but “Yes, I will gently move aside and allow this to happen in and through me.”

Through humbling herself, Mary was exalted. Mary became for us the living temple through which God humbly entered His own creation.

Christmas is a time of renewal. Our Hope is in God made flesh, and our faith is in humbly turning away from ourselves to pay attention to God whispering in our lives.

The humility of Mary is in the recognition of herself as the one who will never stand against the radiant love of God, for there can be no bounds to the infinity of His love. She lifted herself up to God as the one through whom this divine love was to be poured into Creation in the person of Jesus Christ.

We are all called to be Mary, we are all called to say Yes to God in this way, giving our consent to the presence of God in our lives, and allowing Christ to be born into the world through us.

To follow Christ is to sell all that we have, a message the world is loath to hear, particularly at Christmas. We must empty ourselves so that God may work through us. Our life of following in the Way of the Cross is a life of continual conversion, the daily renewal of your decision, with Mary, to say Yes to God.

At Christmas, we will celebrate and remember the gift God gave us in love: Himself. Today, still in Advent, we celebrate and remember the gift Mary gave God: His humanity.

The gifts that we give at Christmas, as beautiful and thoughtful as they are, will ultimately degrade, break or become lost. They are merely symbolic of the true gifts that we give: the gift of love we are called to have for one another.

Now, of course, I’m sure you’ll immediately think of a few people in your life you find pretty difficult to love. And that’s ok. All you need to do is to say to God, ‘Look, I find myself unable to love this person, but Lord you love them. Please love them through me.’

If there is only one message of the Gospel, it is the message of the love of God. And if there is only one characteristic by which the world recognises us as Christians, it is how we love each other and those we meet along the way.

God chose to enter the world as a man, and Mary gave her assent, choosing to fully participate in the incarnation of the Lord. Christ is not forceful. Christ is gentle. He asks our permission to enter our lives, and through us, to enter the world. Once we give that permission, a seed is planted and our lives slowly grow into the shape of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

As we draw closer to the Eucharist this morning, let us lift up our hearts as a chalice to the Lord. Let us allow Christ to fill us with His grace. Let us be vulnerable in faith before God and let the knowledge of the imminent birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ allow us to love one another in humility.

May we each become bearers of Christ this Christmas, living by the beauty of Mary’s example. Let us say Yes to God and allow Jesus, the Living Word to be born into the world through us.

 The Lord be with you.

An Unfamiliar Love

It can be hard to love our family. Our family hold insight into our lives that is often hidden from our friends and enemies. When familial ties are damaged or under strain, we instinctively feel vulnerable. Christmas gatherings can be a time of submerged confrontation. For the sake of our children and ageing parents, we play nicely so as to avoid the hurt and embarrassment of arguments around the table.

This may not be descriptive of your Christmas, and I hope it is not, but for some, it will be. Like any other time of year, this can be one of suffering. It can be difficult to remember the joy of Christmas.

In forming His human body, God the Son glorified Himself and began the process of clarifying and perfecting Creation. The whole of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, is one family. All life shares the same basic molecular structures that allow our cells to replicate and function. As a human being grows in its mother’s womb, the cells that comprise the webbing of its paddling hands and feet are programmed to die, so that fingers and toes capable of dexterity and control can form.

At least at this level, death seems inherent and necessary for the formation of life. We can only assume that in the fullness of His humanity, it was in this way that Jesus Christ, like us, came into the world. It is through death that new life arises. The Divine Invasion at Christmas was, and is, the explosion of hope and life into a muddied and dying world.

This Christmas, as you sit at the other end of the table from whomever it is in your life that has done you wrong, consider their suffering and their need for kindness. Consider the difficulty we all have in bearing the weight of our own lives. Consider His words about those that crucified Him: “Father, Forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Without the love of Christ, the experience of cruelty can drive us to view the world as fundamentally meaningless and deeply scornful. A desire to subjugate the world to the will of the individual is both a cause and symptom of suffering. Loving those who have hurt us means choosing to peer through the veil of cruelty to see the suffering hiding there.

Through the kind eyes of the newborn Christ, we can see afresh those who inflict harm. It is they who are most desperately in need of the tenderness and unfamiliar love of God.

May you bear His gentleness in your actions,

May He bless your family through you, and

May you live in the joy of Christmas.