All Saints Margaret Street | Festal Evensong, Te Deum & Benediction Sunday 3 April 2016

Sermon for Festal Evensong, Te Deum & Benediction Sunday 3 April 2016

Preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses on the

This has been one of those rare years when March 25, the date of the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary – was also Good Friday. So it had transferred to the first free day after Easter Week – tomorrow. Given our close links with the Annunciation, Marble Arch, we decided that we would observe the First Evensong of the feast.

As our Holy Week preacher, Bishop Jack Nichols, told us, if we were in one of the churches of the East, we would keep both Good Friday and Lady Day on the same day. I suspect that even the most liturgically enthusiastic member of All Saints would baulk at the prospect of that.

When I was at theological college in Edinburgh, our academic theology was done at the University. In those days most Divinity students already had at least one degree, so we were pitched in at the deep end.  No sooner had we begun 1st Year Dogmatics, and realized that we were going to have to learn a whole new language, full of Greek, Latin and German terms which tripped off lecturers’ tongues but as yet meant little to us; then we were assigned an essay on the relationship between the incarnation and the atonement.

I can’t recall anything of what I wrote, which is probably just as well. But with the benefit of hindsight, I could have done much worse than to write on the Collect for the Annunciation: 

Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts, that as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection.

Devout souls will recognize it as the collect which also concludes the Angelus.   

It links together the incarnation of Christ, which we have heard by the message of an angel, and his cross and passion, through which, with God’s grace poured into our hearts, we come to share in his resurrection.

Tonight’s readings remind us that the Annunciation is primarily a feast of Our Lord; and only secondly of Our Lady.

In Genesis, we heard the story of the Fall; of what Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’, would call, “Man’s first disobedience”. It is the background for what Paul says in Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, and Romans Chapter 5, about Christ as the second Adam, in whose life, obedience and death, that fall, the downward trajectory of humankind is reversed. 

‘The Fall’ and the associated idea of ‘Original Sin‘ are not popular notions these days.  When we are confident of our own powers, it seems beneath our dignity to be told that we are bound in the chains of sin from which we cannot free ourselves by our own efforts. Yet, when we look realistically at our world, or even just at ourselves, it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are in the grip of a force called Sin, with a capital S, which is far greater than the sum of our individual sins, with a small s.  Sin holds us in its grip and we cannot escape its embrace by ourselves.  As Paul says later in Romans, “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”  (Rom. 7.19)

In his recent book Evil, Professor Terry Eagleton has recycled a comment which my regular listeners have heard me use over the years: “Original Sin is the only Christian doctrine for which we have empirical proof!” Coming after Darwin, we doubt that there was an historical Adam and Eve. This leads some to dismiss all that is said about them in scripture.  But the language of Genesis is myth, not scientific study or historical report. Genesis uses the story of Adam and Eve, to say things about human nature which are true of all of us: we are made in the divine image and yet we have marred that image. We are alienated from God and often from each other; cast out of paradise.  “Adam” represents the common humanity in which we all share, and the fallenness in which we all share too. What happened to Adam happens to each of us.

If we can set aside the individualism of our culture and grasp that common human humanity in which we all share, we can begin to comprehend how Paul and the Fathers of the Church, saw our redemption, our rescue, our reconciliation to God – our ‘at-one-ment’ with God, our restoration to our lost state, being effected by Christ precisely through his participation in our humanity. As John Henry Newman would put it in verses from “The Dream of Gerontius” which we sing as a hymn, “Praise to the holiest in the height”:

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
a second Adam to the fight
and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood, 
which did in Adam fail,
should strive afresh against the foe, 
should strive, and should prevail; 
and that a higher gift of grace 
should flesh and blood refine: 
God’s presence and his very self, 
and essence all-divine.

This atonement is no external legal fiction, a sort of ‘get out of jail free card,’ even though preachers sometimes create that impression. It is effected by the entry into human life and creation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Divine Word has taken our flesh, as never more to lay it aside. The one who created it in the first place and who sustains in being, then goes on to re-create it, to redirect it Godwards through his life of loving obedience, even to the death of the cross. The disobedience at the tree in the garden is reversed by obedience on the tree of Calvary. Incarnation and atonement reach their fulfillment in the resurrection and ascension of Our Lord; in the taking of humanity into the presence of God.

The Gospel in all this is that we do not have to struggle to liberate ourselves from the chains of sin, to make ourselves better unaided. The work of reconciliation, of the renewal and restoration of our humanity has begun in Christ. What we have to do is to accept it in faith and allow it to work in our lives.

St. Irenaeus, at the beginning of the 2nd century, the earliest of those theologians of the early Church we call the Fathers, spoke of this process using a word from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Recapitulation.” What he means is that Christ remakes, indeed divinizes, human life from within, and through our relationship with him, what John speaks of our lives as his abiding in us and ours in him, our mutual indwelling, his participation in our humanity and ours in his divinity, our common humanity is remade too. 

This is reflected in an ancient Christmas Collect:

“Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity.” 

Redemption is not just a turning back of the clock to the way things were, a wiping clean of the slate, it is a taking of humanity into heaven, the reality of which the earthly paradise was only a foretaste,

So where does Mary fit in all this?  

Irenaeus emphasizes the taking of real flesh from Mary so that “the very same creation might be recapitulated, the likeness being retained throughout.”  He also points to Mary’s willing and obedient response, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” bringing salvation to the whole of humankind, by contrast with Eve’s disobedience.

Later, as the Church struggled to articulate what it believed about Christ, Cyril of Alexandria stressed the place of Mary as the one in whom Christ took the flesh by which he redeemed us.  

He called the Theotokos, literally, The God-bearer; usually rendered in the West as “Mother of God” and familiar to us from the Hail Mary. 

To say anything less, was to deny the full divinity and humanity of Christ, and thus to place in doubt our redemption; or at best to see it as no more than an external legal transaction; rather than a restoration to relationship in which we are enabled to participate in the life of Christ, the perfect humanity.

Our devotion to Mary must be deeply rooted in our confession of faith in the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ as truly both human and divine.  If we see him only as a highly gifted human being, then there is no reason to venerate his mother.

To reinforce the idea of the great reversal effect in Christ, the new Adam, the renewed humanity, Cyril of Alexandria uses an idea popular with the Fathers: Mary as the new Eve. In her obedience, Mary reverses the disobedience of Eve. As Eve had been the mother of all living, Mary becomes the mother of us all. We come across it in hymns like “For Mary, Mother of the Lord,” which we sing tonight and Thomas Ken’s “Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born.”

This is language we have to be careful with. These texts were written by men in patriarchal societies – perhaps much more like contemporary Islam than ours.  There is a tendency to blame Eve for the Fall: Adam’s excuse, the woman gave me to eat, sounds remarkably like a miscreant schoolboy desperately trying to shift the blame for kicking a football through the classroom window.  Men are let off the hook by blaming the ‘weaker sex’ for the Fall and for their own sins. It wouldn’t have happened if it had been left to us. Apart from being plain wrong, this kind of language has been and is used to justify the most appalling violence against women – and not just by people of other faiths and cultural backgrounds.

A proper Marian piety, true to the Gospel, will show itself in our openness to God and our readiness to receive the Word of God within us.  Mary, as Augustine explained, “received Christ into her heart through faith before she received him into her body.”  Like Mary, we too should first receive Christ into our hearts through faith so that we can give him joyously to the world.  As Mary gave God to the world, so we are called like her to give God as a gift to the people we encounter.

We are to be like Epstein’s great stature which looks out over Cavendish Square. A very real and strong-looking Mary holds out her Son, who in turn stretches out his arms to embrace the world, as he would do on the cross.