Sermon for Holy Tuesday 2020

The Revd Canon Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster

HOLY WEEK ADDRESS 2020 – 2                                    THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY

The open altar-piece gives a very different impression to the closed image. Where there was darkness only broken by the dramatic form of the crucified Christ and those who were witnesses to the crucifixion – in this second set of images, here we have an explosion of colour and light!

To the left hand we see the Annunciation, and the main central panel has just one image – though it is in two parts, the Virgin and child to the right side: and alongside that, and very much a part of that scene, is the “Concert of the Angels” a wonderful invention of Grűnewald as the angels join together to play a celestial concert in honour of the infant Christ. The right hand panel is the Resurrection image – but we will come to that on Sunday, so we will leave that covered for now!

Let’s begin with the first image – the Annunciation. Unlike many images of the Annunciation of the same period which are set in a very domestic setting, here we are clearly in a church, filled with light. Here we are at the very moment that the Old Testament and the New come together: the Virgin is reading the Book of Scriptures – Isaiah. And above her is Isaiah himself, painted on the wall above her on the arch, holding up his prophecy, the same text that she is reading – “Ecce virgo concipiet” (Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and he shall be called Immanuel). Isaiah is depicted as looking down on the scene, witnessing his prophecy coming true at the very moment that Mary is conceiving that son he foretold in his prophecy. She is at her devotions in church, hands joined in prayer in a simple act of private piety, and the Prophecy of Isaiah is open where she is reading a passage without realizing it is about herself. The book lies on an improvised stand of a wooden chest on which stands another book as yet unopened – this could symbolise a book as yet unwritten: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or even the Word of God, Jesus, as yet unborn.

The dominant image is of course the Archangel Gabriel, who seems to be just arriving in a whirlwind of robes and feathered wings, his toe just touching the ground as he makes connection with the earth. In his left hand he holds the sceptre of his authority, whilst also gathering up his cloak – and with his right hand he is pointing at Mary as he says, “Hail, favoured one, the Lord is with YOU”. Mary seems somewhat sceptical at this sudden angelic intrusion, her face looking away in shock, while her eyes are drawn to look at this heavenly vision. But while our attention is drawn to the angel and the Blessed Virgin, there is a third character present though almost invisible: just above the green curtail you can see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. By the inspiration of that Holy Spirit, Mary is able to accept God’s will to be, in her own self, the first home of our Saviour Jesus Christ on earth.

The central panel shows us earth and heaven joined together, as the Blessed Virgin holds her infant son, gazing adoringly at him as she holds him close. Her dress is rich and full – however the cloth in which she holds her Son is not, it seems a tattered piece of cloth. This is no accident: it prefigures, of course the tattered loin cloth which Jesus would wear on the cross. To the side of the Mother and child, there are the everyday objects, a bed, a bath, and even a chamber pot! What more telling symbol of the full humanity of the infant Jesus? All reminding us of the real earthly and bodily presence of Jesus, fully human child – and fully divine. They are seated in a walled garden – the door closed – another symbol of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of Our Lord, and a rose grows just behind her, but a rose without a thorn representing Mary’s sinlessness.

And above the whole, there is an image of God the Father in heaven seated on a golden throne and surrounded by angels.

But on the other side to Mary, yet connected by the objects on the floor, is a vision of paradise, as an angelic concert is taking place to serenade the infant King. Angels play viols of different sizes and shapes (a very new instrument in 1516!) – whereas some are singing or praying or adoring. But all is not what it seems in the orchestra. Bow technique – how string players use the bow – has changed a lot over the year – but even so, the way these angels hold the bow is impossible! It may have been that the artist had seen the instruments, but never seen them being played – or perhaps he was showing that angels could play them in a way that is impossible for humans! We’ll never know! Most of the angels are playing their heavenly music whilst gazing adoringly at Jesus. All but one, that is! And he does stand out rather, as he is the only one who is green! His hands are adorned with gold and jewelled rings, and he is holding his bow like a dagger, and his gaze is on the God the Father, and not on His new-born Son, and his look is wary, rather than adoring. This is none other than Lucifer himself – the angel who thought more highly of himself than he ought. The angel who is about to have a spectacular fall from grace, having seen the birth of Jesus who would bring about the defeat of his power on earth.

A multi-layered depiction of the Virgin Mary and the beginning of her story – her humility on hearing from the angel that she would bear the Son of God – and then the pure love of a mother for her son, having given birth to Jesus, giving cause for heaven and earth to rejoice, and which would bring about the downfall of all those who, like Lucifer, rebelled against God.

Tomorrow we will witness the profound grief of Mary as she witnesses the crucifixion of the Son she had once held in her arms, – but today let us rejoice in the “Joys of Mary” full of grace, spotless rose, immaculate Mother, whose humility in accepting God’s will taught obedience to her Son, and still teaches us today how to live our lives in accordance with God’s Word.