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ANNUNCIATION.

To Stonehenge Deanery Mothers' Union, March 25th 2002

It is with some trepidation that I dare to address the serried ranks of the Mother's Union after an experience some years ago.

Then it was a service similar to this, but for the Stonehouse Deanery in Gloucestershire. The Revd. Eddie Charlesworth was to preach and Eddie was a bit of a showman.

He entered the pulpit and mumbled a few conventional thanks for being invited, and then at the top of his voice shouted, "God bless the Mothers' Union !"

Right on cue came the biggest clap of thunder I've ever heard. It was just like that event in Passion week when the voice of God spoke to Jesus.

After they'd recovered from the shock, the congregation collapsed. I can't remember anything else Eddie said, but perhaps it doesn't matter.

Those who compile our lectionary have recommended that we put off this festival of the Annunciation until after Easter. I am glad that we have decided to take no notice of that and stick to the tradition of Lady Day being March 25th. First because it is exactly nine months to Christmas - and I do not need to underline the significance of that.

Second, because the events of the annunciation have an important connection with Palm Sunday which we commemorated yesterday.

On the day of the annunciation, Mary of Nazareth accepted without question the will of God for her - whatever the consequences, knowing what they might be.

On Palm Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem when he could have escaped to Galilee. He, the son of Mary and the Son of God, accepted the will of the Father for him, knowing what the consequences would be.

The two events are complementary and together led to the saving of the world.

St. Matthew skates lightly over the events following Mary's being, as it is put, 'found with child'. He had no need to elaborate. Matthew's first readers, like Mary herself, would be well aware of the possible consequences of what appeared to be her adultery.

She could be stoned to death, an act of barbaric cruelty comparable with crucifixion. It still happens today in some countries.

Joseph's plan to 'put her away quietly' was an act of mercy. It was, the act of a man whose natural kindness over-ruled the law of his time. But Joseph was assured by God that all was indeed well. We have to be thankful that Joseph was not only a compassionate man, but that his ear was attuned to the voice of God.

Mary's willing acceptance of God's will, knowing the dangers it entailed, combined with the character of Joseph of Nazareth; these formed an essential part of God's plan for the saving of the world. Why were they essential ?

Because Jesus came, not only to offer to humanity the hope of heaven, but to show a way of life which was achievable in this world. To do that, the Son of God had to take upon himself true and real humanity.

God could have sent some celestial being to proclaim the Gospel. He could have provided some apparition to appear to die on a cross and to rise again. He could have presented the world with a code of conduct - a revised version of the ten commandments mysteriously appearing as did the first lot on Mount Sinai.

And humanity would have been justified in saying - "It's all right for you!" "What do you really know about human suffering ?

"What do you know about the problems of growing up, of disease, of cruelty, of the folly of men with power and of the terrors of approaching death ?" You have to be truly human as well as divine to be able to offer to humanity the hope for which it is looking and to lift it from despair.

The arrival of the Messiah in the world was necessary.

The Birth of Jesus was equally necessary - and that required the willing co-operation of a woman.

So the role of Mary was complementary to that of her Son. Today we offer thanksgiving for her acceptance of that role, the essential prelude to the events of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, the Cross and the Resurrection.

In February 1570, during the reign of the first Elizabeth, the Church of England, emerged, something like we know it, from the turbulent times of the Tudor period. England's break from the Church of Rome did not come with the divorce of Henry VIII as some suppose, but with the Pope excommunicating Queen Elizabeth and charging her subjects not to obey her.

I won't go into detail, but as in so many revolutionary movements the pendulum swung too far. In their zeal to get rid of everything to do with Rome the reformers overshot the mark, over-ran the buffers and emptied away several babies with the bath water - how's that for a mixture of metaphors ?

Mary of Nazareth was one of the casualties - almost. The veneration of Mary by the Church of Rome had reached a level which obscured the role of our Lord himself. At the same time the two arch enemies of Elizabeth were Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots.

It is a tragedy that this coincidence made the name Mary anathema. Not many children have been named Adolf since 1945.

So Mary of Nazareth became a casualty. Her name is rarely mentioned in worship except when she appears in the lowly cattle shed with the Christmas decorations or when someone sings 'Ave Maria' at a wedding.

That's a pity, because the New Testament is perhaps over-loaded with manly virtues. St. Paul batters our ears with ideas of fortitude, steadfastness, endurance and so on. Oh yes, we do need his example of these things.

But the other side of our relationship with God is made up of gentleness, quiet acceptance of his will, of patience to nurture over the years, not only the growing child but the opening mind. Such are some of the virtues of which Mary of Nazareth can be our example. We need the example of someone 'full of grace', for often we are unwilling to accept that grace ourselves.

In days when the characteristics of the world are violence and greed, corruption and pride, we need Mary to be our pattern of those virtues of gentleness and obedience to God's will which can lead us to a firmer faith and a deeper hope.

So with trust, and I hope with your understanding, I can say with sincerity:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Estate of William John Green, 2004