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Annunciation, TitianIn almost any other year, today would be Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a red letter day in all prayer books worth their buckram. The date is a lodestar in our year; we look forward to it almost every evening when we pray the Magnificat and enter into the meeting between Gabriel and Mary that bridged covenants and set in action the mystery of our redemption. But this year, because of an accident of the calendar, a Lenten Sunday takes precedence over the Annunciation and it is not kept where nature and our hearts look for it. The calendar does require that this major feast be transferred and celebrated despite the seasonal conflict; but Mondays are popular days off for clergy, and most churches will be locked all day tomorrow. It is safe to say that 2007 will be a year without the Annunciation for nearly all of us.

The sadness is compounded this year for us because the Annunciation is a holy day in which words and truth are tied together in love. Like other annunciations in scripture—to Zechariah, Abraham and Sarah, to the shepherds abiding in the field—it takes place on a plane in which the act of saying something makes it true. Mary's 'Be it unto me according to thy word' makes the angel's salutation complete—not just through cooperation, but through prophetic, urgent proclamation. Purity of motive, cleanness of heart, clarity of focus and strength of action combine in this sort of discourse in a way that is familiar to all of us who live sacramental Anglican lives. Over and over we say and hear words the utterance of which marks them out as already true:

Peace be to this house, and to all that dwell in it.

Defend, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace; that she may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until she come unto thy everlasting kingdom.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God.

I am ready, the Lord being my helper.

Spoken in, with, for and by the Church, these words are the coursing, breathing, gifted life into which we have been baptised. In recent years the sort of language used in the rarefied world of ecclesiastical discourse has taken on an increasingly antithetical character to this precious idiom. Many of the words are the same as those in our liturgies, but they are gutted of the meanings they have in liturgical use. No matter how many times they are repeated, no matter by whom, no matter where, they do not create the things they describe:

Instruments of unity.

Bonds of affection.*

The gift of authority.

We hope you know that we are with you in your hour of need.**

These phrases are bromides now; in St Paul's words, they have the form of godliness but not the power thereof. Repeating them cheapens them, reduces them to fractions of their original meanings; they begin to behave like actinide elements with half-lives and decay. And their continued use in discourse throughout our communion about problems in our common life obscures those problems. As our empty, hortatory, subjunctive, imperative words rattle in the cybersphere and in the ongoing councils of the church, bishops warm airplane seats en route to retreats and resorts. Communication and communion are breaking down in such a way that we cannot hear or understand one another meaningfully across and within provinces. It may be a fitting though unfortunate aspect of the church year that keeps the Annunciation from most of us this month.

Yet today sticks fast on our calendars and in our minds with its striking, breath-stopping, rushing wind of real communication in which the incarnation took place. Word became flesh. Words became flesh. And Love lived for us and died with us. The Annunciation calls us to heavier, simpler, better words than we know how to speak on our own. The Magnificat asks us to make it a hymn of praise, and not a fraction anthem for the non-eucharistic division of the Body of Christ.

The Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary.
And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.
And the Word was made flesh,
And dwelt among us.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 25 March 2007

* If you know of a source for the term 'bonds of affection' older than the first inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, please let us know.

** The Archbishop of Canterbury, A Service of Remembrance with the American Community in the United Kingdom

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