I had the privilege of leading a quiet day for wives and husbands of the clergy in our diocese this last weekend. Our theme was ‘Taking Time’ – for God, Each other, and the World. We used Bible passages and artworks to open up the themes. The three talks are reproduced here. If you hold the cursor over the artwork links a small preview should open automatically.
1: TIME FOR GOD – Luke 1.26-38
26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”
38“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
The Feast on the Annunciation on March 25th is one of the secrets of Lent. It doesn’t make it into the Sunday lectionary, and midweek churchgoing isn’t much in fashion just now, so it often gets neglected unless the parish is well up the candlestick and making a big thing of Mary.
I want to start with the Annunciation today, though, because Mary stands in some ways for all disciples of Christ, male and female, and her witness points especially to the absolute foundational nature of our first theme – taking time for God and letting his Word speak to us and through us, letting his life live in us and though us. Unless we get this first dimension of Christian living right, it is hard to say that what follows, however worthy, is really Christian at all. We need to keep Christ at the very heart of Christianity or we are sunk.
More about sinking later, but now our focus is on the annunciation to Mary, and I would like to use some classic paintings to bring out the key stages of the story. Annunciation means, of course, an announcing and if you look at the early Renaissance painting of the scene by Duccio in the National Gallery (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/largeImage?workNumber=NG1139&collectionPublisherSection=work) you can see the angel striding forward, arm outstretched in the classic speaker’s gesture. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
This Novgorod icon has the same announcing pose, and in it as in the other pictures a townscape is constructed around the figures with no attempt such as we might make at historical or architectural accuracy. What is shown is a meeting in a porch (not by the well as other tradition has it) – by a porch because this is a new beginning, not just for Mary but for God’s people and for us.
So the first question to us, in the ‘town’ of our real and everyday living, is how alert and open are we to an encounter with God? Most of probably think a new beginning would be a good idea and have something of a shopping list for God – but actually getting ourselves into the frame of mind and spirit to see and receive a new beginning is another thing. There’s a lot of inertia in our systems, and we get accustomed to living with our problems, and even if they are hard ones, they may be more comfortable than what is unknown.
Perhaps it is worth noting that classically Mary is shown as either praying, or just arisen from prayer, in the quiet of her chamber. One hand, usually the left, is touching a book – we presume it is the Jewish scriptures which contain the prophecies about to be fulfilled – and it establishes symbolically and immediately the Mary’s fundamental piety on which God’s purpose is predicated.
We need to ask whether we are making practical arrangements too for our encounter with an angel. Which is not to say that ours will be the same as Mary’s. Rabbi Lionel Blue used to tell of his own encounter with an angel – who was a Yiddish-speaking donkey in the East End of London if I remember aright!
Pious as Mary may be, a talking angel is something of a shock, be it Gabriel or a Yiddish donkey; and there is a quite an emotional journey ahead. A look at the way Mary’s other hand is depicted can illustrate this.
In Duccio’s painting her hand is pulled back, as is her whole body, in shock and and surprise. The index finger also points in the whole altarpiece [the Maesta] composition to Isaiah’s prophecy and leads on into the story of God’s saving act. If you wander round the Gallery and look at other paintings of the Annunciation From there go to Strozzi’s painting (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/largeImage?workNumber=NG1406&collectionPublisherSection=work) and see how he imagines Mary a little later after the first impact of the shock has lessened, now leaning forward in enquiry: How will this be? Her hand is still pulled back but seems now to delicately explore the point to which the Spirit is moving. Poussin with the heavy emotionalism of the Counter-Reformation shows Mary overwhelmed by the Spirit’s touch (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/largeImage?workNumber=NG5472&collectionPublisherSection=work), with hand opened in an ecstasy that reminds of the famous statue of St Teresa in St Peter’s in Rome sculpted by Bernini ten years before. Gaudenzio, painting 150 years earlier leads us into a calmer rapture of joy (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/largeImage?workNumber=NG3068.2&collectionPublisherSection=work); and so to the final quiet acceptance of Lippo Lippi’s depiction, where the whole encounter us summed up in a timeless moment of humble acceptance as both Gabriel and Mary bow before each and before God, arriving, speaking and departing we feel with barely a change of attitude. (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/largeImage?workNumber=NG666&collectionPublisherSection=work). [Originals are not displayed here for copyright reasons but this old woodcut gives an idea of the composition.]
The angel is announcing a word from God, but also greeting Mary. He kneels to express Mary’s honour as one so highly favoured of God, and her face there is serene at such a blessing. The figures bend symmetrically, gracefully and graciously, towards each other. Fundamental to God’s coming is God’s own nature of self-giving grace. We may project onto him our human experiences of domineering rule, but he comes in fact to subvert and redeem them with a rule that always gives, never gets. What after all is there for God to get – except our reciprocal love? In a world so marked by anxiety, fear, hurt, and by corresponding demands for freedom, safety and self-expression, there may be a lot for us to learn here. But when we get there, the peace, and balance and rightness of it all will be like coming home.
It is good to take a moment to wonder at Mary’s experience. What was it like? How would you have felt in her place? Of all the emotions we have mentioned – shock, surprise, wonder, questioning, rapture, joy, acceptance – which would be strongest for you? Perhaps you can remember or imagine a time when you have received and held closeted important good but challenging news?
But we also have to face more challenging questions. Can you believe that God ‘has news for you’ – or have you sadly come to think that you are left out? Perhaps you are waiting for a different word to the one God is in fact speaking. Are you locked in debate with God about what he may be leading you in to, not free to find the joy and peace of it? Perhaps the whole business of receiving and accepting has been spoilt for you by human abuse of one sort or another and until you find healing there you are as it were frozen in your response. Perhaps letting go in ecstasy and joy feels out of character for you too – or is that really a fear?
The invitation of the annunciation is always to believe in our own times and in our own lives that God has good news for us, news of the present coming of Christ and his kingdom; and having believed with our head then to trust with our heart and let the good news of salvation travel that short but all important journey into our deepest self.
And even here we are not alone, left to our own devices. The angel tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Look at how the artists try to show the overshadowing of the Spirit of God. At the top of the painting we might see a cloud-like indication of heaven, or a hand, but mostly the symbolism is of light, rays coming from God to touch Mary’s breast or womb. Alongside the light come of course depictions of the Spirit as a dove. And in the Lippi painting if you are able to get close to it in the National Gallery you can see a series of overlapping circles along the path of the dove showing, following the theory of sight of the time, the rays reaching not towards but our from the eye-like opening in Mary’s tunic by her womb, as Mary’s own acceptance reaches out to meet God’s outgoing love.
Time now to make time for God, and let our tentative reaching out to him be met by his amazing, self-giving reaching out to us.
2: TIME FOR EACH OTHER – Mark 4.35-41
You’re getting on nicely with life, a couple of qualifications under your belt, in a fine church, married to a gorgeous and generous husband or wife, who in present circumstances is even good and godly as well; and then … illness strikes, or a there’s a great row, or something goes wrong with the money, or the other half decides to get or job in Timbuktu, or even worse, get ordained. As they’d say in my own home town of Sheffield, “Oooh ‘eck.”
You get the same effect in Mark’s Gospel. You are reading your way through the cosy foothills of the Parable of the Sower, the Mustard Seed and the Lamp on the Stand. Then suddenly in the middle of Mark chapter 4 the skies darken, a storm blows up, and after a life-or-death encounter, the story is all about scary exorcisms, dramatic healings, and Jesus being rejected in his own home town.
Two features of this predicament stand out: first, it’s all pretty scary. Second, for good or ill, and perhaps for good and ill, we aren’t in it alone. We’ve moved from the quiet of Mary’s bedchamber to the bustle of the lakeside and a boatload of burly disciples. We might have said yes to God, but did we say yes to all them as well?
I don’t know about you, but I am constantly surprised and helped by the nitty gritty of the Bible text, and there’s always something new to find. So I’d like to look with you at the story and dig out some of the deeper meanings of its words. But first, let’s read it straight off as it is:
35That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, Let us go over to the other side.
36Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.
37A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.
38Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?
39He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, Quiet! Be still! Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40He said to his disciples, Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?
41They were terrified and asked each other, Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!
Now for some of those juicy, little-noticed details. First, we’re told the disciples bundle Jesus into the boat ‘just as he was’. And then we learn that there were other boats there too, though they play no further part in the action. What’s going on? Well, we’re about to watch a transformation scene that would make even the stunt magician David Copperfield envious. And the point I think is that Jesus is no magician. There’s no time for him to set up props, to slip anything up his sleeve. And there are witnesses around him on every side. Whatever is going to happen is for real. That’s a comfort for us too, because what we need is some help in our own real situation, and we stopped believing in magic some time ago.
Then it happens. That’s scary – but good news too in its way; because things happen in our lives too. It isn’t always true that everything turns out all right in the end, or it’ll never happen. In this case the threat was shipwreck. The translation most often used today says the boat was nearly sinking, but that’s too tame. The Greek says it was sinking now, even already sunk. What’s more, a series of specific references to the stern and cushion remind us that these lads were professionals, they knew what they were doing. And if they thought they were going down, then down they were going. Again the point is that this is for real, not a softie like me panicking at a bit of a breeze, but experienced fishermen who knew all too well how dangerous these sudden squalls could be that still blow down this day from the hills on the far side of the sea of Galilee.
The third detail I want to point to is the innocent reference to the disciples waking Jesus. It’s actually the same word that’s used when Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter in a few verses’ time. It’s just a passing pre-echo, but to the newly converted Christian hearing Mark’s story it would have resonated with the basic teaching that salvation, rescue, new life, receiving the kingdom, is about Jesus raising us up, us sharing in his resurrection, through and out of the waters of chaos, the waters of baptism (and the word does actually mean shipwreck in Greek sometimes) – the very opposite of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Good news again here as well. We are pretty addicted to self-help and finding solutions – but increasingly we come to realize that what we fix here just causes another problem there, and that if things are really going to change for the better we need a radical systems overhaul.
It’s time to call the manufacturer, and hope his service line is more intelligible than the call centres we usually get. The disciples exclaim ‘Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!’ And the obvious answer, unspoken, but in everyone’s minds is – God, the Lord and maker of sea and sky alike. There is hope!
Now let’s start to apply all that to our own situation. Had it ever struck you that churches are built a bit like boats – at least in terms of the nave roof. And playing with words again, that word nave comes straight in fact from the Latin for ship, so I’m not the first to have had this thought. So we are as it were ‘on board’ with Jesus when we come to church, hopefully too not just as passengers but crew. The boat in our story is a working one, and there is an interesting theory that Jesus chose 12 disciples not just because there are 12 tribes in Israel but for the rather more practical reason that some Galilee fishing boats had 12 oars. So there is no escape from each other. Nor is there any escape from change, which is the whole point of the expedition. And sometimes, which is where today’s story comes in, that change involves a crisis.
Why? The fundamental reason is that not everything in earth and heaven wants God to get his way, to see creation restored to health and the kingdom come. We are caught up in a serious spiritual conflict, and it would be folly to suppose that our own spiritual resources are going to be strong enough to win a way through. Left to ourselves, we are sunk.
So it wasn’t such bad news after all that we are not alone in the boat. Jesus is there with us. No magician, he doesn’t necessarily still our own particular storm with a word of power, or stop us capsizing into the water. What he does do is go through the deep waters of death, come out alive on the other side, and open up the same way for us to follow too. And to be baptized is to go through the waters with Christ and accept his salvation.
While that is ultimately true of the time when we do actually die, through God’s grace we can start to live in that life now as well. First and foremost this is the work of the Spirit. That work begins in a deeply personal way, working away quietly in the depths of each of our own hearts. But it is designed to break out into our public selves too, enabling us to be Christ to one another within the body of Christ. So it seems all those smelly bodies in the boat were important after all. Sometimes miracles do happen and we seem to be plucked from our problem directly by God. But rather more often it is the hairy arm or tender hand of a Christian friend that reaches out to rescue us.
At the heart of God’s fishing expedition to save the world is the unlikely fact that he is asking us, together, the company of those who have signed up for Christ, to be his crew; to work together; to be him to each other; and together to be him to the world. That’s not an easy step for anyone, and perhaps particularly not an easy step for a vicarage family, where the sense of sacrifice can be very real, letting God choose the folk who fill our diaries and our dining rooms, not us. But it’s a step that is very close to the heart of Christ.
And Jesus says, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
3: TIME FOR THE WORLD – Luke 22.7-23
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’
‘Where do you want us to prepare for it?’ they asked.
He replied, ‘As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.’ They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him.’ They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.
We’re going to be sharing in the Lord’s Supper soon. It is time with him: his meal, his table; he is even the bread we eat and wine we drink. But we have already discovered that time with and for him in the boat of the church means time with and for our fellow-disciples, smelly bodies and all. And it doesn’t stop there. Time together with and for Jesus is about being not passengers but crew, and there is fishing to be done; taking our share in the work of the salvation of the world. Whatever we are given is there to be given away, to bless others in word and deed so that the kingdom may come for them as well.
As the evening of the Last Supper progresses, every one of the disciples is going to be challenged to the core. Will they stay with each other and with Christ? Will they still be part of the team, or melt into the shadows? It seems Judas has already made his choice. I wonder whether he was the sort of person who just can’t trust others; trust Jesus to win the victory in his own way; trust himself to the company of his fellow-disciples. He seems in the end a very lonely man. Perhaps you can think of folk like that in parishes you know. Sometimes some people just seem set on a path of self-destruction and end out in the cold.
What will the others choose? Luke singles out Peter and John by name as those sent to make the Passover arrangements for Jesus. What will their choice be? Their track record of understanding is a mixed one. They query Jesus about his plans. Where is the meal to be held? There is perhaps a hint again of disbelief and doubt: finding last-minute accommodation in Jerusalem at Passover was no easy thing. But they do set to, take an oar, and play their part. Perhaps you can think of people in your parishes who are like that too: full of questions, strong characters who don’t just go with the flow, but who in the end are worth their weight in gold. In fact, you might be one of them. Letting God tell the story and sticking it out with each other don’t mean we are all to end up as blobs of jelly or identikit Christians. As if God’s story would ever be as boring as that.
In fact, it’s the very opposite. There is an intensity in the story that could easily be uncomfortable. Jesus eagerly awaits the Passover. We almost find ourselves applying the eagerness to the suffering Luke mentions a moment later, and while that would not be Luke’s implication, John does go on to see the Cross as the Glory. Luke’s turn of phrase ‘When the hour came’ alerts us like the striking of a clock to the coming crisis, Jesus’ purpose is the inauguration of the kingdom, and as the disciple band shares what will be its Last Supper with Jesus, he makes explicit the drama that is about to break, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God. After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’
Why the intensity, the eagerness? Because, Jesus says, it is looking forward to the fulfilment of the kingdom of God. The path of conversion, of re-shaping and re-making back to how we were always meant to be, begins with Christ, goes through each of our hearts, leads us together into the body, the church; and then leads the church out into the world until it too is God’s kingdom, is restored to how it too was always meant to be. And that will include everyone and everything that does not demand to be excluded and g out into the night. How could God’s hope be less?
Emil Nolde portrayed this moment of eagerness and intensity in a powerful painting of the Last Supper made in 1909. Christ seems to give himself totally to the cup he takes. Looking back 25 years later on the feelings he experienced while working on it Nolde wrote, ‘I painted and painted hardly knowing whether it was night or day, whether I was a human being or only a painter. I saw the painting when I went to bed; it confronted me during the night; it faced me when I woke up.’ Its astonishing intensity captures that of the Last Supper itself, and we can read reactions of every sort in the faces of the disciples. Will they choose to stay with Christ or not? What will we choose? How do we react in the face of such an intense challenge to make our choice? The kingdom is coming, the world is changing. Where do we stand? Will we say yes?
In a moment Jesus will say, “Let’s go.” We’ve come together with Christ, and together with each other as the body of Christ, for the express reason of going out with Christ. Everything we’ve been given is there to give away, and everyone we meet is most welcome to join us.