Sermon for the Annunciation/Passion Sunday

“Be it unto me according to thy word”

The cross is veiled. It is there but it cannot be clearly seen. We see but “through a glass darkly,” as Paul explains in the Epistle read on Quinquagesima Sunday. We know and we do not know, Jesus suggests on this day. Such are the greater paradoxes of Passion Sunday. We know and yet we do not know. Do we simply rest in these ambiguities, preferring the forms of indeterminacy and indefiniteness that belong to the culture of illusion? Or do we really seek to see and know and to be seen and known by God? To love and be loved, too, we might ask?

Passion Sunday confronts all our ambiguities and uncertainties. Jesus so gently, it seems to me, says to the mother of Zebedee’s children who “desir[ed] a certain thing of him” that “you do not know what you are asking.” How does one respond to that? Yet it signals the profoundest truth about our wounded and broken humanity. On Good Friday, it will be signaled even more eloquently and more poignantly in the first word from the Cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We don’t know what we want and we don’t know what we are doing. And yet we ask and act as if we do.

What is needed then? Simply a change, a metanoia of the mind; in short, repentance. We are apt to think of that in terms which are far too limited, as if repentance was merely our saying sorry. This day opens us out to a deeper understanding of repentance that is rooted in the humility of the humanity of God in Jesus Christ. That is signaled for us in the greater paradox that belongs to this day this year.

Today is also Lady Day, the commemoration of the Annunciation of Mary. Christ’s Passion takes central place and so the celebration of the Annunciation is transferred to Tuesday. Yet, the conjunction of the Annunciation with the Passion arrests the mind, as it did the mind of the poet John Donne in 1608, contemplating the even greater conjunction of the Annunciation and Good Friday on the same day. Somehow the themes of the Birth and Life are inseparable from the themes of Death and Resurrection, Christmas and Easter. This is a critical feature of the Christian understanding. It concentrates the mind upon what he called the “abridgment of Christ’s story,” his coming to us and going from us into death, the Angel’s Ave and Christ’s Consummatum est, the one heralding the beginning, Hail Mary, and the other the sense of ending, “it is finished.” Such rich paradoxes illumine the glory.

“Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb,” as Donne puts it in another poem. Passion Sunday signals the rich immensity of Christ who begins his earthly life in Mary’s womb. He breaks forth into the world as the incarnate son at Christmas only to go to the tomb of Good Friday from which he breaks forth again into resurrection glory at Easter. The tomb becomes the womb of new life, the new life of the Resurrection. We know this, don’t we? We know the story. Indeed. We do know and yet we don’t. We don’t fully grasp the “immensity” of the mystery “cloister’d [hidden or contained] in thy dear womb” and which now goes the way of the Cross.

The cross is veiled from our eyes. How will we come to see more clearly? That is the further significance, it seems to me, of Passiontide which ushers in deep Lent, the profounder contemplation of all the forms of our unknowing. The answer to today’s Gospel question, “what do you want?” is actually given by Mary’s response to the mystery of the Angelic salutation. She heard the Ave of the Angel; she asked, “how can this be?” She responds to the explanation with the words, “be it unto me according to thy word.”

What this means for us, I think, is our attentiveness to the things of Christ’s passion, the things that, of course, are opened out to us through the Scriptures read in this holy season. It may be that, like Mary, “a sword shall pierce through [our] own souls also” at what we hear and see, for what is on parade in the passion of Christ are all of the things belonging to the disorder and the disarray of our humanity. Her “fiat mihi” is not, however, some sort of shrug of the shoulder, some sort of concession to fatalism, the “whatever” of contemporary culture which means ‘who cares? I don’t’, the quality of indeterminacy and indifference. No. Her reply signals the very nature of the Church and never more so than in deep Lent. We hang upon the very words of Christ, hanging upon the very words of him who goes to hang upon the cross for us and for our salvation. He comes and he goes “to give his life a ransom for many.” Let Mary’s “be it unto me” be unto us for it is for us.But only if we attend to it and let the immensity of this mystery arrest our attention.

We know this but its meaning remains veiled and hidden from our eyes. The idea of ransom and substitution, of someone taking the place of another, suffering for another, dying and suffering for us, seems utterly foreign and strange. Yet it belongs to the deeper logic of our life together as a body, as a community. For all our pretense of independence and self-sufficiency, we do not live alone and simply for ourselves. That is the way of death and it belongs to Passiontide to help us to see more clearly the ignorant and deadly folly of our ways, that, indeed, we “know not what [we] do.”

Only in contemplating our unknowing can we begin to come to know; knowing that we do not know is the beginning of our knowing. We are not left without educational direction and guidance however. The Letter to the Hebrews signals the meaning of what is seen but not fully understood. “By his own blood, he entered in once to the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” “He is the Mediator of the new covenant.” How “by his own blood?” How is he “the Mediator”? By what comes to us through Mary, namely, Christ the Incarnate Son; “of her flesh he took flesh”. He is both God and Man, no true Mediator otherwise, no possibility of “eternal redemption” otherwise.

Passiontide presents us with the paradox of suffering and glory. It reveals the depths of human folly and wickedness, to be sure, things we would rather not see or think. That might seem to be a rather negative truth and one that contrasts with the gentleness of Christ’s rebuke, if rebuke it is, to the ambitions of the mother of Zebedee’s sons. The point is that a glory awaits us but in far different terms that what we might imagine. Hence the profounder truth of Mary’s response to the divine initiative without which the Lord is not with her and through her with us. She, indeed, “mothers each new grace,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, but only if we attend to the word which defines her and the truth of all our humanity with her.

“Mary Immaculate”, he goes on to say,

merely a woman, yet
whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do –
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

“We are wound/ With mercy round and round/ As if with air.” That is the mercy of Christ in his Passion for us, the mercy conveyed through the mother of mercy, Mary who “holds high motherhood/towards all our ghostly good/ And plays in grace her part/About man’s beating heart.” To learn that mercy is the joy of Passiontide. “Let all God’s glory through,” a glory known through the pageant of the passion, through the humility of the humanity of Christ. It comes to us through her and it can only be in us by learning Mary’s humility, learning to say with her “be it unto me according to thy word”.

“Be it unto me according to thy word”

Fr. David Curry
Passion Sunday
March 25th, 2012

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