Annunciation in the Kitchen

Annunciation in the Kitchen

A sermon for Advent 3 on Luke 1:26-38

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My friend Father Kilian McDonnell turned 95 a few months ago. Kilian is a monk of St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and has been a member of that community since 1945. Do the math: seventy-one years. Over many of those years he distinguished himself as a theologian, publishing several books on the theology of the Holy Spirit. For years he represented the Roman Catholic Church in its dialogues with the Pentecostal churches, and served as a resource to the Catholic charismatic movement. At the age of seventy-five he decided he wanted to write poetry, and since then he has authored five collections, most recently Aggressive Mercy, published in 2014. When I was in Collegeville last month, Kilian told me that he was quite sure that Aggressive Mercy was his last book, but there was no hint of regret in his saying that. In fact on a previous visit he had told me that he had not single regret in his life, and that for all of the opportunities he’d had as a theologian, ecumenical partner, teacher, and poet, the greatest joy of his life was that he got to pray the scriptures with his community four times a day in the Abbey church.

That’s a lot of prayer and a lot of scripture. It has both anchored him deeply and expanded his imagination and engagement with the biblical stories. This evening as I turn to the story of the Annunciation, Kilian will, in a sense, be preaching with me through a poem based on this Gospel text called “In the Kitchen.”

Giotto has it wrong.

I was not kneeling

on my satin cushion

quietly at prayer,

head slightly bent.

Painters always

skew the scene,

as though my life

were wrapped in silks,

in temple smells.

You know the sort of painting Kilian is pointing to. Medieval and Renaissance art, in which Mary seems so devout, so at peace, so receptive. The setting, her clothing, the furniture, and her bearing together suggest a European noblewoman at prayer. Certainly not a Middle Eastern peasant girl, betrothed but yet married. Perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old, committed to be wed to this man Joseph, but still living with her parents in Nazareth, awaiting the day when Joseph will have built up enough of a business and saved enough money for their marriage to be sealed.

Actually I had just

come back from the well.

Placing the pitcher on the table

I bumped against the edge,

spilling water on the floor.

That’s closer to the life a young Galilean woman would have been living; fetching water from the well for the family. Certainly far more familiar with the well, the kitchen, the cooking fire, than with prayer chapels and silk cushions.

As I bent to wipe

it with a rag,

there was a light

against the kitchen wall

as though someone had opened

the door to the sun.

Rag in hand,

hair across my face,

I turned to see

who was entering,

unannounced, uninvited.

All I saw

was light, white

against the timbers.

You know the angels in those paintings. They are handsome figures, with long robes, flowing hair—never bearded—and aside from the wings they appear as stately, almost human figures. As noble in look as the idealized Mary. There are no such angels in the Bible, of course. In the Bible angels can appear in plain human form, unrecognizable as God’s messengers until the penny drops, as it did for Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre. Or they are described in terms that suggest fierceness and power: three sets of wings, eyes all around, “face was like the sun, legs like pillars of fire” as John the Divine describes in his strange vision in Revelation. (Rev. 10.1) “Face like the sun.” This is what Kilian is working with in his poem, as he writes,

All I saw

was light, white

against the timbers.

I hear a voice.

Greetings were given:

the Lord was with me,

I was elected,

I will conceive the Son

of God by the Holy Spirit.

My son will reign forever.

What could she possibly make of such words? “I stood afraid,” is how Kilian continues his poem. And of course she did. In Luke’s telling, the angel says to her “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” Do not be afraid; words that angels need to speak in these texts; words Jim Croegart calls “that important line of angels” in his song, “The Angel Gabriel—words spoken to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, and later to the shepherds in the fields, because their angelic appearance is frightening, their words stunning, impossible, overwhelming.

I stood afraid.

Someone closed the door.

I dropped the rag.

That’s where Kilian ends his poem. In the kitchen, rag lying on the floor, Mary stunned by what has just happened.

Now of course Luke says that after the Gabriel had spoken to her, Mary replied with words of consent.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That is crucial to the biblical story, because it says among things that a fifteen year old girl’s agreement matters. As Luke sees it, Mary’s words “let it be with me according to your word” are a hinge on which the world turns. And isn’t that so very typical of God? To call on the last and the least and the unlikely and the little ones to carry the greatest of work and to answer the most important of callings; again and again that is God’s way. Father Kilian knows this, and he knows it well. Praying the scriptures day by day by day; singing the Magnificat—Mary’s song—every night at Vespers day after day, year after year. He knows.

But it doesn’t make it any less frightening, and Kilian knows that too. Which is why, in his poetic picture, the rag simply drops to the floor. Which is why we, when we stand in the face of some challenge, some calling, some unsettling insight, some holy moment, we find that our jaws can simply drop. But as surely as the Mary of Kilian’s poem bent to pick up that rag and to begin to live this thing into which she has been called, we can’t stand motionless and drop-jawed in the face of what calls or pushes or uproots or unsettles us about this business of God. We need to pick up the rag, and set about living into this new thing. And you know, most often that starts not in stately church buildings or on mountaintops, but in the homely and ordinary places. In the kitchen.

*The poem “In the Kitchen” is from Kilian McDonnell’s book Aggressive Mercy, published by St Johns University Press, 2014.

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