A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 20 December 2020 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: Luke 1: 26-38
The history of the calendar makes for interesting reading. Julius Caesar introduced the practice of marking January 1 as the beginning of the year. But in the middle ages people marked March 25 as New Year’s Day. Why? Because that was nine months before Christmas, the feast of the Annunciation, the day when, as recorded in today’s gospel, the angel Gabriel visited Mary and brought her the news that she was to be the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, which corrected the discrepancies in the old Julian calendar, and reverted to January 1 as New Year’s Day. But Britain and its colonies, then including what became the United States, didn’t swap to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, and it was only then that March 25 stopped being celebrated as New Year’s Day.
I want to explore why marking March 25 as the start of the year, and in that sense the most significant day of the year, was actually quite a good idea, and why Gabriel’s conversation with Mary in Bethlehem ranks alongside Mary Magdalene’s conversation with the risen Jesus in the garden on Easter Day as perhaps the two most significant conversations of all time.
Let’s start by looking at what I’m going to call the three dimensions of human existence. Each dimension is awesome and glorious – but at the same time circumscribed and inhibited.
Dimension one is that we’re alive. We breathe, we can move, we can feel, and explore, and discover. We can grow, and develop, and stretch, and act. In the pandemic we’ve been deeply aware of what we can’t do – but there’s still an astonishing number of things we can do – things we mostly take for granted unless we’re injured or disabled – and even then there’s still an indescribable number of things we can still do. We’re alive. Yes, we’re alive – but we’re still creatures: we’re still limited in time. The course of our life is threescore years and ten – sometimes more, sometimes less – but, in the light of eternity, the blink of an eye. Meanwhile we’re also limited in space. There’s a hundred million stars in the galaxy, and a hundred million galaxies in the universe. And we’re limited to just this one planet, and only a tiny square yard of that. So as much as we’re alive, we’re limited by time and space.
Dimension two of human existence is that we’re not alone. We have each other. We have people, of myriad different sizes and shapes, characters and aptitudes, longings and lovings. We also have other creatures, puppy dogs and tarantulas, leopards and butterflies, in a glorious array of colour, form, movement and energy. We can make relationship, make friends, make adventures, make love, make new life, make home. Together we can work, party, journey, play. There’s almost nothing in the world we can do that the word ‘together’ doesn’t make twice as good. But this, too has a shadow side. There’s a poison at large, that distorts relationship, undermines trust, introduces envy, diverts attention, misconstrues kindness, destroys love. It’s much more damaging than coronavirus, and much more infectious. We can try to eradicate it, through effort, legislation, control or training: but it always sneaks back in. We don’t like the old-fashioned word sin. But whatever we call it, it inhibits the second dimension – relationship.
Dimension three of existence is understanding. We learn. We know. We think and experiment and hypothesise and conclude. We research and unearth and test and investigate. We listen and ponder and weigh and connect. We translate, interpret, communicate and increase. This knowledge is in many ways a greater power than our bodily strength, or even our solidarity in relationship. It’s what most marks us out from other creatures. But again, it’s incomplete. Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he knew he knew nothing. We know so much – but don’t know so much more. We have knowledge, but less often understand what we know. We are limited in what we can imagine, let alone realise, let alone bring into existence.
So these are the three features of our human existence. We’re alive – but we’re limited by time and space. We make relationship – but such connection is infiltrated by sin. We know – but there’s so little we really know.
Hang on, you may be thinking, what happened to March 25? What happened to Gabriel’s conversation with Mary? Why was it so important?
Well, if we look closely at this epic conversation, we can see, on close inspection, how it’s divided into three parts. Gabriel speaks and Mary replies – not once, not twice, but three times. And what I want you to see is how each of these interactions maps onto the three dimensions of human existence I’ve just outlined. Let’s take them one at a time.
Here’s the first interaction. The angel Gabriel is sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin whose name is Mary. And Gabriel says, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But Mary is much perplexed by his words and ponders what sort of greeting this might be. This may not seem like much of an interaction. Gabriel says only seven words and Mary isn’t recorded as saying anything at all. She just is perplexed and ponders. But look at what’s happened in the light of what we’ve been exploring about human existence. We’re alive, but we’re limited by time and space. See how the angel Gabriel overcomes those two limitations, and arrives from the God of eternity and everywhere to Mary in her particular time, now, and her particular place, Nazareth, in Galilee. In an instant the first human limitation is dismantled, transcended, displaced.
Let’s look at the second interaction. The angel says, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. You will conceive and bear a son, Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary’s quick to spot the fatal flaw: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ See how this discussion is all about the second dimension of human existence – relationship. Gabriel is saying God has overcome your distance from glory; your son will be God’s son too; your son will be of the line of Jacob and of the line of the great king David. In other words he will restore the great connection between Israel and God that was disrupted in the exile 500 years ago. Yes, Mary, you’re quick to see what relationship can’t do, how relationship can’t automatically create life, overcome division, outflank alienation. But you’re about to see how God can overcome even our human separation. Just you see.
Then there’s one more interaction. Remember the third dimension of human existence we explored just now was understanding. With that perspective, listen to this third interaction. Gabriel says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and overshadow you. Your child will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and is in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God.’ Mary says, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ And there’s nothing left to say. What Gabriel overcomes is the limitation of Mary’s understanding. Gabriel explains how Mary will conceive, recognises this will be a unique child, and helps Mary grasp the astonishing revelation by pointing to what has already happened to Elizabeth. Finally Gabriel utters the words that clear out the limits of all human understanding; ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ Game, set and match. Mary says, ‘You have transcended my limits of time and space; you have transformed my limits of broken relationship; now you have transported me to the presence of God and opened the eyes of my understanding. All I can say is, let me live in this wondrous new reality you have opened out before me.’
It’s sometimes said that Jesus is conceived the very moment Mary says, ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’ Because our creaturely limitation of time and space, our sinful limitation of broken relationship, and our imaginative limitation of understanding name the ways we’re alienated from God: and Mary’s words are the moment all three dimensions of that alienation are set aside, and we and God are together like never before. Jesus represents the full companionship of God and humanity, and Mary’s words are the moment the word becomes flesh, at least in the tiniest form, and the companionship of God and us, for which the whole universe was created, and which is so deeply inhibited by the three dimensions of our flawed nature, finally at this moment comes into being.
So yes, this is just about the most important conversation that ever took place. And yes, it makes sense to make March 25, the date of Jesus’ conception, the moment of the utter cooperation of humanity with God, New Year’s Day, so that we might forever recall how God overcame our limitation and turned our alienation into glory.
We stand today, in the midst of the pandemic, overwhelmed by limitation, which has inhibited our flourishing, our livelihood, and our ability to imagine anything beyond a return to how life used to be. But this story lifts us out of every limitation into everlasting joy, companionship and understanding, crystallising on a simple question and a gentle, conclusive answer. How can this be? Nothing is impossible with God.