from St Faith's
In 1489 an Italian priest by the name of Fra Roberto published a book
of his sermons. Fra Roberto was one of a group of popular preachers who
travelled widely in Europe in the 15th century. They had a tremendous
following and hundreds of people would flock to hear them. Would that
preaching were as popular today! Unfortunately these preachers became
just a little too successful and popular for the Pope’s liking, and –
sadly – they were banned by the 5th Lateran Council in 1512.
So much for the history lesson. More importantly for us, Fra
Roberto left us in his book of sermons an absolute gem of Christian
devotion. It is in the form of a meditation on the Annunciation. In
reading this sermon we need to understand a couple of things about
the Christian life as it was lived 500 years ago. The first thing
is that Fra Roberto’s congregations would have been very familiar with
the huge number of paintings of the Annunciation that adorned the
churches of Europe at that time. Mostly they would have needed only to
look around them to see Roberto’s sermon vividly illustrated even as he
was speaking. These paintings were the equivalent of today’s overhead
projector or Powerpoint presentation. And the second thing we need to
understand is that mediaeval Christians were much better than we are at
savouring each and every detail of a bible story. Fra Roberto in his
sermon draws out the full meaning of St. Luke’s Annunciation story,
describing in detail each phase of Mary’s response to Gabriel’s
message. And, if you are interested, you will find each one of Mary’s
turbulent emotions vividly portrayed in 15th century art.
“She was troubled at his saying”. The news that Mary is to be the
mother of the Messiah is unbelievable, and not a little crazy. In fear
and disquiet she holds her hand towards Gabriel in a gesture which is
half defence, half rejection. This messenger, this message, is at best
intrusive; at worst frightening and unwelcome.
“She cast in her mind what manner of greeting this might be”. Mary
holds up both hands in a gesture of puzzlement – her fingers spread as
if to grasp something that is elusive and invisible. The gesture
is now of someone who is stunned and disorientated, someone trying to
make sense of something, trying to get to grips with what is strange
“How shall this be?” The Virgin gestures to Gabriel with her right hand
curved like a question mark. There is the beginning of understanding
but a thousand questions. Why me? Why now? How can I be expected to do
“Be it unto me according to your word”. The Virgin’s hands are folded
together, palms inwards, in a classical gesture of acceptance. God’s
will is now her will, God’s plan is now her plan. ‘With God, nothing is
impossible’. Mary’s hopes for a just and God-centred future, expressed
in the Magnificat, are now focussed on the Holy Child she is to bear.
The mediaeval preachers and artists haven’t merely left us with a
powerful insight into the role of the BVM in the Incarnation of Our
Lord. They have left us with a sort of choreography of how God speaks
to every Christian soul. On our journey of faith we are closest to God
when we are at our most vulnerable. At times of change in our lives,
times when we experience deep joy or deep sadness, our comfort zone
gets broken down and God can at last reach us. It is at times like
this, when we experience the deep realities of life, that God can
change and renew our lives. We can see this happening when people come
to faith, or return to faith, through the experience of falling in
love, of having children, of surviving and recovering from illness or
accident, sometimes even through the painful experiences of loss,
bereavement and grief. And often the messenger comes, with soft and
gentle wings, as death approaches. Whenever we are faced by life’s
challenges we can begin to understand the turmoil that Mary felt, as
she struggled to come to terms with the Annunciation. We may not at
first recognise Gabriel’s arrival: the idea that God himself could be
speaking to us is hard to believe when all we can think about is the
intensity of our own personal experience. And the more painful the
experience, the more we will reject the notion that God, if good, could
be involved at all. But slowly, dimly, we begin to perceive that there
is some sort of meaning there, that there is some sort of message.
Deep sorrow and deep joy make us ask God questions. If deeply happy the
question is “How could I deserve this?” If deeply hurt the question is
often exactly the same. In that search for meaning God tells us of his
total acceptance of us and of our lives, of his unconditional love for
us whatever the circumstances, and of our utter dependence on him, in
sickness and health, for richer for poorer, in life and in death.
There is a fifth portrayal of the Virgin in the Annunciation story.
Here she is depicted alone and dumbfounded after Gabriel had left her.
She continued to ‘ponder all these things in her heart’. And as she
came to terms with Our Lord’s quite unexpected and dangerous style of
life and ministry, with the horrors of the Crucifixion, and the awesome
and inexplicable events of the Resurrection, her heart must have often
remained in turmoil. She would have experienced all over again the
emotions of the Annunciation: the denial, the confusion, the
questioning and the acceptance.
Most of the time God’s messenger is busy elsewhere and doesn’t bother
us too much. But every day we have to cope with the same dilemmas faced
by Our Lady: how to cope with the reality of the Incarnation in our own
lives. How can we meet God’s demands to live out the Christian life
fully, dangerously - and all in the dim light of that
maddeningly inadequate half-knowledge that he seems to give us?
How can we respond when his demands are so unreasonable? I sometimes
feel like a Mackenroe playing on a sort of heavenly Centre Court,
shouting at the Umpire “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!” How can we live our
lives when a just and God-centred future seems so unattainable? How can
we cope when our wish for a better world so far outstrips what we know
we can actually achieve by ourselves? I guess we can only follow the
example of Mary, and experience with her that Annunciation turmoil of
emotion that re-visited her throughout her life.
We can only trust God’s power to achieve the impossible in us. We can
only pray that we may in the end be given the grace to say, with
Mary, our ‘yes’ to God.
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