Why are we listening to this text this morning?
The angel Gabriel is sent by God with a message for a young woman in the town of Nazareth. The woman’s name is Mary. Gabriel arrives and says to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Why are we listening to this text this morning? Why are we listening to this story, which is often called the “annunciation”, the great announcement that Jesus is on the way? Doesn’t the pastor remember that Jesus has already been born this year? He has already been born, and in fact, he has grown up to teach and preach and heal. He has lived, and died, and then risen again (just two Sundays ago). Why are we back at the beginning?
This past week, on April 4th, the feast of the Annunciation was celebrated in Catholic churches. In Orthodox tradition, this feast is always celebrated on the 25th of March. But in Catholic tradition, this date is moved if March 25th falls during a Sunday of Lent, during Holy Week, or during the first week of Easter. So, it fell this week instead.
The reason for the date that we remember the annunciation is simple if you think about it. The date of Jesus’ birth is fixed in our yearly calendars at December 25th. March 25th is 9 months earlier, the length of a pregnancy. March 25th is, therefore, is a good time for Mary to conceive, so that she can carry her bouncing baby boy to term by the next December 25th.
But the significance of this pregnancy calendar doesn’t stop there. Both Christmas and the date of the Annunciation are also significant in our natural world. December 25th is near to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year; while March 25th is the spring equinox. And there is at least one more layer of meaning, too. Traditionally, Jesus dies on March 25th as well; that’s the day that Good Friday fell this year. So his date of death, and his date of conception are the same.
I promise you I’m not making all this up. And this has nothing to do with the Da Vinci Code or any other Christian conspiracy theory. These traditions around the conception and birth and death of Jesus date back to at least the 3rd and 4th centuries. The great theologian and bishop Augustine wrote: “For [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.”
I’m not making this up. So the big question is: Why? Why did the early church map out the life of Jesus onto the calendar in this way? What does it matter? What does it mean, for them, and for us?
Think of it this way: In the cycle of our church year, there is a touching point between the two great miracles of incarnation and resurrection. There is a touching point between the swaddling clothes and the winding cloth; the wood of the manger and the wood of the cross; new life and life after death. These stories meet one another each year so that just as one is ending, another is beginning. Jesus is always with us: not only in the eternal sense, but in a body: gestating, being born, growing, dying, rising again.
Jesus is always with us. And so it is with the church. We are, in the beautiful words of Paul, the body of Christ, and individually members of it. It is a body that reaches far in both time and space. And a part of that body has been here, on this corner, for the past 125 years.
For the past 125 years, West Concord Union Church, as part of the body of Christ, has been going through its own life cycles. Membership has grown and shrunk. Pastors have come and gone. Conflict has flared and been resolved. Countless ministries have been born and transformed and died and sometimes even risen again. People have been baptized here, some who are among us today. People have married here, some who are among us today. Beloved ones have been buried after memorial services in this sanctuary; think of those whom you remember. The body of Christ that has called this corner home has gone through many life cycles, and the building itself has changed as well; once, it almost burned to the ground.
This anniversary year we are looking back and looking forward on our life as part of the body of Christ. As part of the looking forward, we are trying to imagine together how we might worship and serve in the years to come, and what would help us to do that. For more than two years, we have asked questions and thrown around ideas and consulted professionals and weighed options. The process has been exciting and it has been imperfect and it has been hard. We care, so much, about this community and about this building that is such a big resource for our ministry together.
We’re not done with the process yet. There is still work to do, and decisions to make. We have not, and we will not, each get exactly what we would prefer. But we do get one another, in all of our gifts and all of our failings. We do get the opportunity to do something big and beautiful together, for the next generation of this particular part of the body of Christ. I hope you will come downstairs today as we each begin to consider how we are called to support this anniversary project.
The WCUC Covenant, written in 1892, reads: We, as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, do unite ourselves in this Christian Church. We desire to worship and serve God, to walk in the liberty of [God’s] truth, and to minister to [one another]. Feeling our individual and united need of divine aid, we desire, through this communion of the visible Church, to strengthen each other by mutual sympathy, forbearance and helpfulness, and in all things looking to his Grace which is ever ready to help us, to do our part to establish the Kingdom of God in the world.
What is our part, in establishing the Kingdom of God in the world? What part will we, here in this room, play in this life cycle of this part of the body of Christ?
The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin whose name was Mary. He came to her and said: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”