TEREBINTH TREE (Luke 1.24-38 / Mark 9.17-31)

St. Botolph’s Parish, Annunciation to Our Most Holy Lady (deferred), 26 March 2017

All things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9.21).

Under the glossy leaves, the red clusters, overhanging the garden bench, a face unseen promises three signs. ‘Show me a sign’, you ask. ‘Prove to me that it’s really, truly you’. Streaming through stained glass, fresh spring sunlight bathes gold leaf, blue tint and red, then retreats behind a cloud. ‘See, it’s not the sun’, you remark. ‘It’s coming from inside’. ‘What is?’ Mum snaps tensely. Along the rigid edge of her lip, foam gathers in liquid rage. ‘The light I saw in the garden’, you persist. ‘It’s coming from …’ ‘See what you’ve started’, she lashes out at the vicar. ‘Not enough hearing voices. Now she imagines light glowing from crushed stone and canvas and wood. Imagine’, she bristles, ‘exposing a girl, at her impressionable age …’ ‘I’m twelve, nearly thirteen’, you feel your body go rigid as Mum’s. ‘… To such a hideous half-pagan totem pole figure …. it’s unEnglish, it’s …. child abuse’. The vicar stutters. ‘M-, Mrs. L-, Latimer, I d-didn’t mean, a-, as it were, to off-, offend’. ‘I’d hold my colonial tongue …’ she grinds her teeth. ‘I b-, borrowed it from …’ As he grovels, light from the object strikes his eye. ‘From the Orthodox priest up the road. It’s the sort of image that English farm folk, nobles, kings honoured from the seventh century. And you you call it unEnglish?’ ‘I’ve never been so offended in my life’, she storms out. ‘Come, Dora’. You do not follow. Your eye follows the light through canvas, paint, and wood into …

Spreading clusters of reddish-violet blossoms, glossy leaves of a tall Middle Eastern tree in your suburban garden in Kent. Where you first heard your true Mother’s voice.

A voice, melodious and merciful. Clear as Mum’s is garbled, radiant as hers crackles with static waves of sex priggishly stifled, rage pitilessly repressed. A voice light years, rather,  light centuries removed from the glass panes and bone-dry bricks of that counting-house that is Mum’s true temple. Eight o’clock every morning, she chains up her cycle to an iron hook on a three-foot stone wall. ‘Remnant of a dead convent’, outside her banking office. She should know. The dead are all around. Waiting angrily in the queue for a paycheque sliced in half. Walled up inside a cubicle – or behind a desk of Honduran mahogany, hand bathed in Amazonian blood. In her office, despair gathers dust from dense filing cabinets. Crumpled receipt for a child unborn. Shredded bill for success dearly bought. Should you come across a dream deferred, stuff it in an envelope. Deposit it in the circular file. When five rolls around, repair to the pub. Wash out your soul dust with a jolly pint. Only beware the undertaste of a life misfiled. ‘You’re twelve, nearly thirteen’, declares Mum enthroned in Mayfair blue behind her desk. ‘Time to start planning the future. A position in the firm, perhaps?’ ‘Your Mum simply wants the best for you’, echoes the mild vicar from Toronto. Fresh sunlight retreating behind a cloud. At only twelve, you already recognise that deaf, dumb spirit. Rigid limbs of the repressed. Foaming lips, grinding teeth. Spurning an icon of Mary for an idol of Mammon. Forgetting the England that once was.

Under long leaf and red bloom, you still hear England’s Mother call you from death to life.

In an England bereft of convent refectories, where Ned the ploughboy ate his fill after the harvest failed; where Nell placed a handmade corn dolly on the edge of the Virgin’s altar, thanking her for an infant’s fever lifted; in a Manchester, a Liverpool, a London where the feverish bundle outside Sainsbury’s looks up at cages of corporate greed – who is dead? Who is alive? Can you tell? Testify to Our Lady’s all-holy image. Speak the truth and you set the living apart from the dead. When the deaf-dumb spirit hears the truth, immediately it convulses whatever body it possesses. Which foams and goes rigid, or turns and flees. Blessed is she who does not flee. Blessed is she who follows the beam of light.

Does she believe impossible things? All things are possible to her who believes.

In the dry, dusty northern town called Nazareth, very little seems possible. Crippled under the hobnails of Rome, robbed by Bedouin bandits and money-changers in a marketplace, an ageing carpenter does what he can to survive. So very little possible. To his intended, a girl of twelve, nearly thirteen … everything is possible. Fresh spring sunlight bathes her face, as she sits there spinning outside the shop. The sun almost blinds her – but it is not the sun that speaks. ‘The Lord is with you, favoured one!’ Shaken, she does not rise and flee. ‘Fear not, Mariam’, the face unseen assures. ‘You will conceive a child and call him by a conqueror’s name. Like his forebear David, he shall slay his tens of thousands. Not by the sword but by the truth’. ‘I have never “known” a man’, says Mariam. ‘The Light that hovered over creation shall overshadow you’, declares the voice. ‘The Child born of you shall make the blind see, the lame walk, the dead live – and blessed is he who shall not be offended on account of him!’ ‘Let it be then’, she replies, ‘just as you have said’. From a fountainhead of blood and bone and flesh, Light inconceivable is conceived.

‘Why do you hide your face in your wings?’ asks a twelve-year-old bathed in a blue light. ‘I cannot look upon the living Ark’, the archangel shudders. ‘The Light is in you’.

Beloved in Christ: when the sun streams through stained glass, all that it takes is a cloud or two, a twisting of the earth on its axis, to blot out the light. When Light Himself streams into the Virgin’s womb, he leaves his imprint forever. On gold leaf, blue tint and red, stone crushed into paint, canvas and wood. He is in the glass that is her icon … and in the girl. No dust of dead souls, no idol of Mammon shall ever blot him out.

Under glossy leaf and reddish blossom, the light in the garden takes you by the hand.

‘Do you know what sort of tree this is?’ she points to oblong leaves and reddish clusters. ‘It is Pistacia palaestina, the terebinth tree. Sitting under such a tree, Gideon, the Judge, asked the angel for three signs of a coming victory over the unbeliever. Fire from a rock. Dew upon the earth … and fresh dew, on a fleece, while the soil below stays dry’. ‘Show me three signs’, asks Dora. ‘Have you not guessed already?’ says the Virgin. ‘The Virgin who conceives yet remains a virgin. The light born in a cave and victorious on a Cross’. ‘And the third?’ asks young Theodora, lover of the icon. ‘A girl of twelve, nearly thirteen’, replies the Mother of England, ‘who follows the beam of light from death to Life’.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

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