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The Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)
20 December 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Micah 5:2-4
Psalm 80
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-49

Perhaps my favourite image of the Visitation—the meeting of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth about which we heard at the Gospel and that provides the context for the Magnificat—is by a fifteenth-century Florentine painter named Domenico Ghirlandaio (fig.1). Ghirlandaio was a contemporary of Botticelli and, as legend has it, the painting master of Michelangelo. He was known in his lifetime as one of the top painters of his generation, a workman-like painter, someone who would get the job done (1). He was someone who could be counted upon to paint scenes from sacred history in ways that connected these long past events with the lives of his contemporary, sophisticated, urban patrons. Indeed, in his paintings he seemed to do the work of the preacher: to connect the sacred story with our stories.

One of the ways in which he achieved this was to place these historical events in contemporary settings, filling the images with familiar looking objects and people (even portraits of the patrons and their friends). These late medieval Christians seemed quite happy to see scenes from the life of Christ and the saints taking place on the streets of their own Florence. Indeed, doing this made the stories come alive, made the past present. In our own day, we seem less comfortable with this narrative technique. Nevertheless it once (and perhaps will again) had great power.

In his Visitation, Ghirlandaio shows Mary and Elizabeth meeting in the forecourt of some kind of palace that sits on a hill overlooking a large city—hardly the humble house of Zechariah, but perhaps like the estates of the patron. The area in which they greet each other is crowded with other women who seem to have noticed Elizabeth and Mary greeing each other. The observers include a particularly fashionable young woman, whom we believe to be the daughter of the patron of this fresco that forms part of a cycle of the life of the Virgin in one of the most prominent churches of the City, Santa Maria Novella. Mary seems to have come up the hill from the city and finds Elizabeth in this place. While the location is not a depiction of any specific local in Florence (or any other city that I can determine), it is executed with such verisimilitude that it captures the feel of a contemporary city, captures, in fact, the feel of the hills on the south side of the Arno that look north down onto Florence. Perhaps if you have visited the Piazzale Michelangelo and the Church of San Miniato al Monte and looked down on Florence lying at your feet you will know what I mean. This setting evocative of the world of the painting’s viewers make the point in no uncertain terms: the Gospel is a story that has significance for the lives of real people, significance for the lives of you and me, today.

As we imagine the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary unfolding in this setting, observed by the gentlewomen of Florence, we know that it is here, in the presence of someone like “us” that “the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!’” Here, somewhere we can imagine being real, somewhere that very definitely does not have that “once upon a time” quality, Elizabeth first uttered those words so familiar to us and now universally known as part of our daily hymn to Our Lady, the Angelus. Here, somewhere we can imagine being real, Mary then uttered that great hymn, Magnificat, which soon after became a fixture of daily evening prayer. The hymn we know and sing, was sung for the first time in a real place, was overheard by real people, people like us. To imagine the Magnificat and its message as the spontaneous response to Elizabeth’s confession of Mary’s blessedness, as happening where we can imagine it, make it all the more powerful, all the more real, all the more significant. Indeed, we can imagine all those other women standing by and observing the scene returning to their homes and telling others what they have heard, telling others the marvellous story of these two kinswomen greeting each other in the name of the Lord and saying such extraordinary things to each other.

That hymn, sung by that teen-aged girl, affirming God’s great power as he helps those most in need, reverses the received power structures of society, and delivers his people, belongs in our world. God’s message delivered by that girl in public and witnessed by people like us, then, has a bearing on our lives. It matters that God spoke through Mary, it matters that God acted through Mary, it matters that God in Christ came into the world as Mary’s child, delivered in a place as real as that hill top looking down on our city. And if it matters that God did these things, if it matters that God acted into our world, and not into a story of set long ago and in a place far away, it means that we must respond, we must act.

We must be like the young, aristocratic Florentine girl in the painting and tell others what we have heard Mary and Elizabeth say. We can imagine young Giovanna Tornabuoni going back to her father Giovanni and telling him that a pregnant young woman in the forecourt of the palace overlooking the city proclaimed that God,

... hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

What ever would her father have said in return? Well, we know he thought enough of our Lady and the work done by the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella in her name that he commissioned these amazing paintings and helped spread the story further to those who might not have had the words come alive when simply read aloud or sung. We are called by the reality of this story to spread the word of God’s magnificence towards the poor, his mercy, and his love. We are called not simply to spread the word, but to live our lives as a fitting response to Mary’s proclamation to Elizabeth in our several vocations.

As we approach the feast of the Nativity this coming Friday, may our imaginations, our hearts be as open to the reality of the Christmas Story as our Florentine forefathers, and may we seek to make our response as fitting as the gift of the Magi whom we will encounter at the end of our Christmas pilgrimage.

Andrew Charles Blume+
Advent Feria, 11 December 2009

(1) Herbert P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli: Painter of Florence (London: George Bell & Sons, 1908), 109, 353 (doc. XXIV).

Figure 1

Ghirlandaio Visitation

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation, ca. 1486, fresco. Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel.

© 2009 Andrew Charles Blume