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Advent 4 Sunday 20 December 2020

December 21, 2020

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By The Very Revd Catherine Ogle

About 600 years ago, in the wonderful city of Florence, in the Dominican monastery of San Marco, a man who was both Friar and artist, lived, worked and worshipped. Fra Angelico painted delicate and simple frescos of the life of Christ on the wall of the monks cells, intended as an aid to mediation and prayer, and they are there still although now the monastery is a museum. I remember my visit and climbing up steps to the first floor, the dormitory level, and there is his painting of the Annunciation, the meeting of Mary and the Angel as told by St Luke. As you see it’s a serene painting, with muted colours now, with the slender figures of Mary and the angel in the archways of a porch open to a Tuscan garden. Mary seated, the angel bowing and that steady gaze between them. The girl and Gods messenger. Earth and heaven.

The devout man behind this beautiful painting shows us in his painting the most profound and enduring things in life, which are faith, hope and love. And I’d like to speak about faith, hope and love today.

During all the challenges of the last year, we have been finding out what’s most important. The Chapter team here has found great strength and solace in holding on to our Calling. On the front cover of our cathedral Calling and Vision booklet are the words, looking to the future with faith, hope and love. When all about us changes, these are what endure. And we can see faith, hope and love in the calling of Mary, at the Annunciation, and then lived out in the rest of her life.

This year of unique challenge has left its mark on us all, in some way. I believe that if we let them, this year, the Christmas scriptures will have a particular resonance and impact. This ancient cathedral has seen it all before of course in the plagues of past eras. But nowadays, for most of us being continually vulnerable, needing to live within restrictions, which change, in order to protect ourselves and one another from infection is something quite new. Life has been constrained, and we’ve all experienced loss in some way, and some of the loss has been profound, the loss of work, of major opportunity, and hardest of all, the loss of loved ones. And every hardship has hit the poor and those with greatest vulnerabilities, the most.

So let’s look at the Annunciation again.
1 At the Annunciation we see that Mary has doubts but faith overcomes them. The angel says that nothing will be impossible with God and she says ‘Here am I, the servant of the lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ We see Mary’s faith in God. But what’s more wonderful, for me, we see God’s faith in Mary! God trusts Mary to bring his Son into the world and enable his great hopes for humanity, and his plans for salvation to become real. And as God called Mary, so God calls each of us to work with him. Does that sound impossible to you? But with God nothing is impossible. Mary shows us that ‘not me’ can become ‘well why not me?’ Why not you? We see faith both ways.

2 At the annunciation we see the love of God.
God knows and loves Mary and chooses her to bring Jesus into the world. Mary gives her future to God’s boundless love, rather than her own narrow expectations. Through her God’s love will be unleashed in the world. This is beyond her wildest dreams, but nothing is impossible with God.

3 Finally, at the annunciation we see Hope. It’s with courage and audacious hope that Mary takes this step into the future. She couldn’t possibly have known the implications but was content to trust. She claims the deep and radical tradition of the prophets in her Magnificat, in which this young girl speaks more words than any other woman in the New Testament, she is Gods voice for a radical new future of justice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Magnificat ‘the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.’ For nothing will be impossible with God.

In preparing this sermon today I’m very aware that this service marks Canon Mark moving on, leaving his cathedral work to focus fulltime with those who are in training in the Diocese, responding to Gods calling to ministry in lots of different ways within the church. Mark will be working with people responding to Gods call, who are wrestling with inevitable self-doubt, wondering ‘why them?’ and guiding them to engage more deeply with scripture and tradition, more deeply with the world and with themselves, to learn and reflect and grow in faith, hope and love. He’s just the right person to do this because Mark embodies what he teaches with tremendous integrity. Like the angel, he will be both supportive and challenging as people work out their calling to discover the possibilities of God.
As we look to the future, 2021 and beyond, it would be so easy for us to be fearful, to doubt God and doubt ourselves. But we are not called to that. We’re called to faith, hope and love. To work with God’s purposes. So why shouldn’t we emerge from this pandemic as kinder, more compassionate people who realise that unless each person is safe and secure none of us is safe and secure. Why shouldn’t we expect that it’s perfectly possible for us to see the day when all the foodbanks close because no one needs them anymore? Or expect that together we can learn to live so wisely with creation that environmental destruction and climate change cease? For nothing will be impossible with God.

Mary wasn’t old enough to have learnt all the sensible reasons to say no, so she said yes with her whole life.

As we look to the future in faith and hope and love let’s say yes, that Gods kingdom may come on earth.