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.
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).
Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation, ca. 1486, fresco. Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel.
© 2009 Andrew Charles Blume