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The Fourth Sunday of Advent (O Rex Gentium)

Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 21st December 2014

A Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury

Sunday, 21 December 2014

2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; Luke 1: 26-38

As you might imagine it’s not often I find myself with time to visit an art gallery at this time of year but on Tuesday I went with a purpose to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.  I was having lunch with my brother that day and I suggested we met at the entrance to the Sainsbury Wing of the Gallery.  You need to know that my brother knows the National Gallery like the back of his hand and loves it dearly so I knew it was going to be a challenge to persuade him to look at only one painting with me.  We started with the practicalities, by me asking whether he was likely to know where this painting was – ‘Yes’ he said confidently, ‘I know where everything is, that is unless it’s 18th Century French’.  And he said that in a way which meant that no-one with any taste would even wish to know where the artistic outpourings of 18th Century France might be.

Well, the painting I wanted to show him was painted by a Frenchman, Francois Le Moyne, and it was painted in 1727 possibly as a commission for Winchester College.  It’s an image of our gospel reading this morning, the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, the Annunciation.

I’ve taken a particular interest in this painting this year because the author Mark Byford is researching a book about it and he and I have been discussing it.  We’ve looked at images of Le Moyne’s work and I have to admit I haven’t much liked it, and I guess somewhere Winchester College haven’t liked it either, not enough to keep it in their possession.  But until Tuesday I hadn’t seen the painting in the flesh.

And so, despite our differing prejudices, my brother and I headed off to experience Francois Le Moyne’s ‘Annunciation’ for the first time. 

It’s true that the painting is mannered.  The two figures of Mary and the angel fill the scene with just a few cherubs looking down.  It feels pietistic and baroque in style neither of which qualities tend to draw me in or encourage me to linger. Nevertheless in seeing it I realised that its rather exaggerated style does work quite powerfully in one particular respect.

One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve explored the story of the Annunciation is that the many artists who’ve portrayed it have their own favourite aspect of the story of Gabriel and Mary’s conversation.  Luke describes how Mary goes through several different reactions all in a very short space of time.  Entirely as we might do if confronted by a messenger from God.  There’s her initial reactions of fear, even panic (‘Do not be afraid, Mary’) followed we’re told by perplexity and bewilderment, but which quickly turns to submission and humble resignation (‘Let it be with me according to your word’).  All those wonderful Italian artists of the 15th Century would have tried their hand at the Annunciation for it was then a very big narrative, yet for example Botticelli tended only to paint Mary’s perplexity and her recoil at the divine visitor, leaving other elements of the story to others.

I’d got used to looking at how the artist would draw attention to some reality of our experience through both his subject matter and his style.  And that’s precisely what Francois Le Moyne does by creating a flow between the bodies of Mary below and the angel above.  He weaves a line which means they bend into what the eye sees as a single shape.  Mary leans into the arch of the angel and thereby creates a single unity at the heart of the canvas.  This is no longer a dialogue between two separate and independent beings.  This is a person bending themselves to the destiny represented by God’s agent.  Mary surrenders herself to something she did not choose, something which will bring her grief and pain, something which involves hardship and social disapproval and yet something which God has asked of her.  She and that destiny are one.

We heard the same in our first reading where King David is also told by God’s agent, this time Nathan the prophet, that God’s plan is tough: distasteful and disappointing as it is he has to bend his will to meet with God’s will.  Obedient he may be in the end but in the process it thwarted his heart’s desire which had been to build a dwelling place for God in a temple.

How often do you and I have to surrender to something we did not choose?

·        At a trivial level, of course, it’s a commonplace experience. Think of all the arrangements which families have been making for the next week.  Not everyone gets to spend Christmas how they would like.  I don’t need to tell you that sharing a different set of priorities can be quite testing for families.  Or for those who are left alone at Christmas - did life turn out for them how they might have imagined?  At an everyday level we quite often live with options not of our own choosing.

·        More significantly there are some very big determinatives which shape our life, as pregnancy and motherhood shaped Mary, which come from the choices other people have made or from misfortune.

Think of the shocking events of this week both in Australia but more especially in Peshawar.  How will those communities and the families within them adapt and find sense in the random mowing down of life?

I suspect there isn’t one of us here who doesn’t ask our faith to come to our aid as we wrestle with circumstances or feelings which cause us such perplexity.  More than that we have to learn to lean in to what life and God have asked of us, adapt to the things which we did not choose.

There’s a challenge here to the way we think about God’s will.

Just because we did not choose something does not mean it isn’t of God.  Sometimes things imposed on us can be exactly what God asks of us.  Just because we have to surrender to difficulties, real hurt and hardship, does not mean it’s the wrong thing happening.  Mary could not know how much pain this path would cost her but it was never the wrong path.  What is asked of us is that we lean in to our destiny - that which we did not choose - and that we search for God in it, we look for spiritual and emotional resilience from wherever that may come.  Maybe good friendship will see us through.  Maybe a sense of doing the right thing will sustain us.  We’re all the time trying to match life’s circumstances with a sense of hope but Gabriel never said it was going to be easy.

One of the questions Mark Byford asked me about the Annunciation was why it had gone out of favour.  The Church today pays it little regard.  If the non-churched think about it at all it’s probably as a quaint fairy story.  So we discussed the way narratives go in and out of fashion.

However, I also said that I think the Annunciation gives our contemporaries some particular problems.  In this day and age we like to divide the world into things which are easy and things which are bad.  Yet the Annunciation says that hard, painful, difficult things, suffering even, can be to us good.  We can find in a hard road more of ourselves and more of God than a comfortable life will ever teach us.

Mary was invited to a destiny not of her own choosing, to a path where love would bring with it intense pain and heartache.  As Le Moyne’s painting symbolised she had to bend her will and become one with what God asked of her.  As do we if we truly want to know the ways and works of God, and what it is not to be afraid.