Mothers’ Union Eucharist
Tewkesbury Abbey on the Feast of the Annunciation 2007
The Feast of the Annunciation inevitably acquires something of the flavour of the season in which it is set.
Next year, when it will be celebrated when we have already greeted the resurrection, it will be caught up in
the alleluias of the Easter season. We will be able to superimpose on the picture we have just had painted
for us by Saint Luke, of the new beginning God was to make in Mary and her child, the Easter picture we
find in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, of the disciples in the upper room, Mary among them,
rejoicing in the truth of the new beginning God had made in raising Jesus and looking forward to Pentecost.
It’s always rather good when, with an early Easter, the Annunciation falls in Eastertide and highlights for us
how it came to have the calendar date it has in the Christian year. The scholars tell us that in the early days
the celebration of the Annunciation was fixed to be at Easter to express a profound theological truth, for
both events proclaim a God of new beginnings, of re-creation. I’m reminded of that lovely stanza in a poem
by John Taylor
He who lay curled in Mary’s womb,
Starting and ending in a cave,
Has broken new-born from the tomb.
But, of course, it isn’t like that this year. The Annunciation is not in Eastertide. It is in Passiontide. Only
yesterday we changed gear in the Christian year and began to walk with real seriousness the road that will
bring us is six days time to Holy Week, Palm Sunday and Good Friday. To be honest, finding the
Annunciation on the very day after that has begun feels like an intrusion and we hardly know whether to
celebrate or not. We don’t want to lose the momentum that draws us to the passion. So, if there is a
picture to superimpose on that of the angel addressing the virgin, inviting her to be the mother of God’s
Son, it’s the picture of the mother at the foot of the cross, watching her child die, a sword piercing her
own soul also.
Paraphrases of familiar gospel stories wake us up, give us new insights, help us to hear things afresh. I heard
a good one a couple of weeks back. Moses arrives at the burning bush. “I must turn aside and look at this
great sight,” says my Bible. “’Amazing!’ said Moses” in the version I heard. And we’ve had a paraphrase this
evening of that very familiar story, that only Luke among the gospel writers tells us, of the encounter
between the angel (who is God in only light disguise) and the young girl chosen to be God-bearer. Like all
the best paraphrases it enables us to hear a familiar story in a fresh way. But I did have one or two worries
- for paraphrases can sometimes be so creative they supply some detail the Bible doesn’t give or change
the meaning. I wonder whether you noticed what I did. It was this sentence
The angel seemed to be waiting for me to say something, and suddenly I was filled with a feeling that
everything was going to be all right. So I bowed my head and said: “I am God’s faithful servant. I trust and
believe your words will come true.”
The first is this, a little subtle change, but an important one. In the gospel, Mary says, “Let it be with me
according to your word.” That’s different, isn’t it, from “I trust and believe your words will come true”, and
the difference is consent. Mary doesn’t describe what will happen. She assents to it. She says she is content
to play her part. “Let it be to me according to your word.” Willingly, freely, she becomes the collaborator
The other worry is this. “Suddenly I was filled with a feeling that everything was going to be all right.”
Nowhere in Luke’s account do you find that. It’s true, the angel says “Don’t be afraid”, but nowhere does it
say that she knew it was all going to be all right. And I don’t think she did know that either then or at a
whole lot of other moments when she is mentioned in the gospels. And Simeon at the Presentation in the
Temple certainly didn’t say it was all going to be all right. A sword would pierce her soul. It is with good
reason that we sometimes call Mary “Our Lady of Sorrows”. No, the wonderful thing about Mary is that
she gave her resounding “Yes” to God without knowing it would be all right. Her consent was not
dependent on a guaranteed happy ending. And, when you look at the Annunciation through the Passiontide
lens, you can see that very clearly.
“Humble lifted high” is the title we have given for this service. It’s an almost-quote from Mary’s great
protest song for justice, Magnificat. “He has lifted up the lowly,” she sang, as she and Elizabeth rejoiced
together. And Timothy Dudley-Smith in his paraphrase of her Magnficat makes that “the humble lifted
high”. And who is it talking about? Who is, who are, the humble lifted high?
Let me give you four answers, each quite briefly.
The first is Mary herself. Here is the lowly village peasant girl, probably with few airs, but with many graces,
whom God chooses to lift high. All generations are to call her blessed, for what God looked upon was her
lowliness, her humility, and so he did great things for her; holy is his name. He filled her with the Holy
Spirit. He made his home within her womb. He highly exalted her. And the Church, of course, has
recognised that she is blessed among all women, glorified among the saints. There are those lovely 17th
century words of Bishop Thomas Ken that capture that
Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
Next to his throne her Son his mother placed;
And here below, now she’s of heaven possest,
All generations are to call her blessed.
Yes, the humble lifted high. It is the humble to whom God is drawn. It is the humble who respond to him,
“Let it be to me according to your word.” It is the lowly, the ones who know the hardships of life, the ones
who live without security, who can say Yes to God, and walk with him, taking up their cross if needs be for
him, without any promise that everything is going to be all right. Hail, Mary, full of grace, humble one lifted
Who are the humble lifted high? It is the 200th anniversary of the passing of the law to end the transatlantic
slave trade. This service has been put together to have at least an echo of that theme, not least because
Mary’s song, Magnificat, reveals Mary the articulate prophet of the silenced ones, the marginalized ones, the
voiceless ones, the downtrodden ones. And it is a song righting wrongs and turning tables. It is a cry for
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
And Anglicans of the eighteenth century, in England and in the colonies, sang those words at Evensong,
oblivious (at least one hopes they were oblivious, for the alternative is worse) to their meaning as they
bought and sold their slaves. How did the slaves understand words like that? Did they, as our reading says,
“have a feeling that everything was going to be all right”? Well, yes they did, but not right in this life. All
those wonderful spiritual songs of the black enslaved peoples looked to a future where things would be all
right, but only when Michael rowed the boat ashore, the river crossed to heaven. For this life, the sword
would go on piercing their souls and other violence would be inflicted on their bodies. Yet they were
deeply religious people. They were the lowly, the humble, the ones who wanted to collaborate with God.
Who are the humble lifted high? They are the marginalized ones of this world, who out of their poverty
and their deprivation, walk with God, carry their cross, live without guarantee of a reversal of fortunes in
this life. Unlike Mary, they are not lifted high as this world sees things. They are despised and rejected. But
God does not see as we see. In his heart they are lifted high. In his heart they are called “blest”. Who are
the humble lifted high? First Mary. Second the voiceless ones.
Here’s a third answer. “Despised and rejected” is a hint. Passiontide is a clue. You know, don’t you, the full
title of today? It is the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. To be honest we
have made too much of today as if it were Mary’s. She’s a key player, certainly, but it is a feast of the Lord.
It is his annunciation, his coming into the world that is announced by the angel. The humble one lifted high
is the Lord Jesus Christ. He learned that humility from his mother, the lowly one. He learned it too from
his father, not faithful Joseph, but the humble holy God whose being he shares. Humility, you could say, was
in his nature. It’s wonderfully expressed, of course, in that great passage in Philippians, which you will
almost certainly hear read during Passiontide.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be
exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in
human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.
Humble Christ. But Paul goes on, of course, “Therefore God also highly exalted him”. Christ, humble lifted
high. Lifted high, but, yes, where lifted high? Ultimately, of course, lifted to the heights of heaven, to the
right hand of the Father. But, first, lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to
himself. And, just look at the way he lived his life, and look with particular attention at what happened in
Gethsemane, and what you see is one who, like Mary, embraces the Father’s will, responds obediently to
the divine initiative - “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” - and does it, though there
is no promise that everything is going to be all right. There is no promise of reward, just a desire to fulfil
his vocation. On the cross and on the right hand of the Father, the humble one lifted high, who reveals to
us the holy humble God. Who are the humble lifted high? First Mary. Second the voiceless ones. Third
Jesus. (In a sense, of course, first Jesus!)
Which bring us, of course, to the final answer to our question, “Who is, who are, the humble lifted high?”
And this answer is more about hope and promise than about something already achieved. If we will follow
our Saviour Christ, if we will imitate his holy mother, we shall be the humble ones whom he will lift high. It
is the humble ones God wants. It is in the humble ones that he recognises the image of Christ. It is the
humble ones he can use to change the world. It is the humble ones who readily collaborate with him. It is
the humble ones who say Yes without counting the cost. It is the humble ones who don’t check first that
everything is going to be all right. And, of course, whether they know it or not, already they are being lifted
high, raised up by God’s love for them, lifted up by the Holy Spirit whose gifts equip them and give them
confidence, lifted up by their dignity as the sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ.
Today we give thanks for one of God’s humble ones, Margaret, who, like Mary, has responded to a call. We
pray that she will know that God lifts her high, not in terms of status and prestige, but by his love for her,
by his Spirit whose gifts will equip her and give her confidence, by her dignity as one of the sisters of Jesus
But tonight, for all that it is wonderful to be commissioning Margaret, is not really about her. It is not really
about Mary, for all that we honour her as the humble Mother of God. It’s about you and me and Jesus
Christ. It is Passiontide. He is the humble one who has taken up his cross and will be lifted high. And he is
saying to you and me, as he has said before, with urgency and longing, “Will you walk with me, without the
guarantee that it’s going to be all right, will you carry the cross with me? Will you take a risk with me? Will
you say, ‘Let it be to me according to your word’?”
Who is, are, the humble lifted high? Why, you and me, of course, if we will walk with Jesus.