St. Botolph’s Parish, The Annunciation, 25 March 2012
For with God nothing will be impossible (Luke 1.37)
What do you see in a piece of glass – a ‘looking’-glass? An image in a mirror? Maybe a face full of wrinkles, sprinkled with liver spots? Without our glasses, some of us cannot see the mirror. Time dims our eyes, dulls our ears. Chills our flesh. White hairs in a beard. Silver threads woven in and out among the black. A slow pulse. Aching muscles, soggy lungs, and dry, flaky skin remind you: time is catching up with you. Run! But you cannot outrun him. Look at him in the shadows there, peering over your shoulder. Do you recognise that hollow face? Do you sense his bony fingers prodding, tapping you, pursuing his prey? Now turn around. Open your eyes. That hollow face is … yours. Our enemy waits until your legs give out and you have no energy left to run. Do you recognise his image in the glass? From that fleshless grin, you hear the only word that the enemy ever speaks out loud: ‘Impossible’.
Give me back my health, let me sleep through the night. Impossible, he says. Give me back my body that reasons and remembers, dreams and hopes. Impossible, he smirks. Beside a lonely hospital bed, the enemy waits. Arms folded. A sardonic grin on his face. A frail, broken voice wells up from your dry throat and lungs, pleading: ‘One more hour’. Bending low, the enemy whispers one word in your dying ear: ‘Impossible’.
Our enemy wins by the order of nature. Sooner or later, every kingdom falls. Every man, woman, and child slips into his hands. Our oldest enemy: Death. He will have – his hour. But when? When your brain wave goes flat on the screen? Your breath no longer shows up on the glass? Or does Death win when the only word you know is: … ‘Impossible’?
Walk the streets of the secular city. Everywhere you see the hollow face of Death. Cold, stiff bodies jostling on a bus. Dull masks of boredom: all that they ever see in the mirror. Like all ghosts, most are unaware that they are dead. An office worker walled up inside a cubicle, staring for hours at an empty screen. A woman waiting angrily in a queue, her mind as numb as his. Watch her eyes grow dull, as the commuters on the late suburban train. She no longer sees or hears the child pulling at her sleeve. Leave him a stale slice of pizza, shove him in front of the TV. For dead bodies, wandering in the secular desert, the sun never rises. It is an optical illusion. Another day of misfiled papers, nothing more than that. An empty glass in a pub. Why ask for the impossible? Beyond the edge of the monthly pay cheque lies – nothing. Tossing and turning in the night when they are unable to sleep, a question – unanswered, unasked – presses on a secular mind: Is life nothing more than this? Wrinkled skin and brittle bones: these are not the real signs of age, the harbingers of Death. A culture has grown old when it has lost … its hope. Death lives on the lips of a professor, pronouncing: a human ovum cannot possibly fertilise itself inside a virgin’s womb. Death dwells in a divinity lecturer, declaring: dead cells cannot possibly reconstitute themselves in a grave. Sprinkle a drop or two of water on a baby. Why not?
Perform a wedding for two atheists, whom you will never see again until you lay them in the grave. Harmless customs. But no miracles, please. After all, they are impossible. Impossible: as a God who becomes man. Impossible: as a God who makes all things new.
Walking the streets of the secular city, you see crowds of the walking dead. Bored faces and aching muscles. A consumer culture has sold them all that it has left to sell; and, as the last gadget sinks into yesterday, the consumer gazes into a looking-glass and asks: ‘Is that it?’ The last big deal, the last fake tan. Is there nothing more?
Then, one day, the face in the mirror is not the dry, hollow face of Death. It is the face of Life. The face of One who makes … all … things … new.
In a provincial backwater called Nazareth, forgotten by the consumer culture of Rome; a dusty, defeated land of aching muscles; in a land, and a time, grown too old with regrets to conceive of a God who cares – a teenage girl, newly engaged to a carpenter, sees an image. A figure blazing like fire but fuzzy … like a light, reflected in a looking-glass. She cannot make out his face. ‘Hail, favoured one’, he declares. ‘The Lord is with you’. What is she to make of it? Her mind races. ‘Do not be afraid, Mary’, says the face in the light. ‘You will conceive a son and call him “Jesus” – and, when the last kingdom has fallen, his kingdom will never end’. ‘How is it … possible?’ the girl asks. ‘I have never been with a man’. She can see the hollow, wrinkled faces in her mind, mocking her, whispering and gossiping. She can picture the sardonic grins. ‘When God wills’, the angel tells her, ‘the order of nature is – overcome. You will overcome it. Has the world grown old? You, who are young, will give it a new birth. Has a people without God lost its hope? You will carry Hope Himself inside your womb. Is the land dry and cracked, barren and empty? In you, it will become a fountain. You are the looking-glass, in which those who have seen only the face of Death will gaze on the face of Life’.
That young teenage girl, in a time grown old, does not analyse the words. After all, they are … impossible. She says only: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it so!’ – and a Son rises inside her womb, never to set again.
Beloved in Christ: today, as a young girl passes from death to life, we honour the voice of an angel that spoke the impossible. We honour the voice of a young girl who replied: ‘Yes, it is possible’. To the numb mind and the hopeless heart, in a world grown old, we say: it is time for the Timeless God to become a little Child. A Child, born only of hope in the womb of a teenager who knew only how to hope. Our God could have descended in fire and flame, in lightning and thunder and cloud. But no. Our God could have slain the enemy, Death, with his own right hand. But no. Death has his hour, his final hour, when the fleshless grin turns to terror and he falls prostrate at the feet … of the young girl who dares to say ‘Yes’ to Life. As we lift up her holy image today, on the feast of her glorious Annunciation, let a young girl newly baptized see what we – grown old – cannot. Let her scale every mountain, let her plumb every depth that jaded man calls impossible. When dead men fill her ears with barren lies, let her remember that she passed through water and the Spirit from death to Life on the Feast of God’s Unwedded Bride.
Let her look in the looking-glass and remember: with God, nothing will be impossible.