Sermon: The Smell of Parsley
Preached on 19th December 2010
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
On Thursday morning this week I popped into the Cathedral library to read some papers before a meeting. When I was finished I went to see what was on the ‘for sale’ shelf. Not much! But I did pick up the 1995 ‘Book of Best Sermons’. I even looked inside. As I browsed through I noticed a sermon by Jeremy Davies, Precentor of Salisbury – second sermon in the book – page 7. To my further surprise it was on the theme of the annunciation. Now I had already decided that I would take this as a theme for my sermon today and I was thinking of basing it on Edwin Muir’s poem. ‘The Annunciation’ or ‘The Angel and the Girl are Met’ so I was not looking for inspiration here. I was just idly curious. So I found the sermon on page seven and then reeled with astonishment. For this is what I read:
The angel and the girl are met
His sermon was based on the very poem I had in mind. It seemed like a message. Certainly I must use this poem to help me preach on Sunday. So here is the rest of it.
I think it is a wonderful poem. Like the great paintings inspired by this scene it manages to hold together both the peace and the excitement of annunciation, and also to blend the ordinary and the holy. It captures the still point at the centre of the greatest turning point the world has ever known.
Jeremy Davies says that much of the poem is about the maid and the stranger saying ‘yes’ to each other. ‘As they look into each other’s eyes they see not only their own faces reflected in the other, they see heaven and earth joined together’. It is a love poem, he insists, charged with energy which he calls sexual: the ‘increasing rapture’ and ‘trembling feather’ being his evidence. I was surprised by that. I had read it more chastely – maybe having Fr Angelico’s innocently pastel image in the back of my mind. For me it is the stillness, the potential energy that is captivated here, not the mutual attraction:
Of strangest strangeness is the bliss
That from their limbs all movement takes.
Absolute stillness lies at the heart’s core of annunciation. That is why perhaps it is such a wonderful subject for painting and poetry. Resurrection and crucifixion, dynamic and shattering events, are a different matter. Better held in music or drama or film perhaps. But how do you make a movie of annunciation? It would I suggest, be a mistake to try. Better to paint a picture or write a poem. For these media invite us to active silence, the attentive stillness in which the observer becomes a participant. The annunciation reminds us that contemplation is the source of meaningful action when it takes us to the point of glimpsing the connectedness of the heavenly, the transcendent, and the divine with the ordinary, the everyday, the local and the particular.
Charles Causley’s poem, ‘The Ballad of the Bread Man’, emphasizes this theme of ordinariness – and yet makes it sacramental.
Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.
‘God in his big gold heaven
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’
Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel.
‘The baby’s on its way.’
We do not need to be pious in order to contemplate annunciation. For the holy is not other-worldly. It is this-worldliness changed. Annunciation invites us to engage with the holy in terms of this world. Muir again:
Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way.
A few months ago the former priest of this Cathedral told me that it was wonderful to vest for services in the sacristy here in Durham because as you did so, you saw your own face reflected in the glass in front of the icon on the wall, thus seeing your own face reflected in the face of Christ. I nodded and murmured in a slightly embarrassed agreement but the truth is that I had never noticed this. Last Sunday when I was getting ready before the Cathedral Eucharist his words went through my mind and looking forward with intense gaze … I did not see my face reflected in the face of Christ. Rather I realized that this only happens if you are several inches shorter than me. So I stooped down and peered in – and there I was! But the moment had passed and I stepped away from the icon-mirror and into the ordinary day of ordinary Eucharist with ordinary people. And maybe that is right, for that is where annunciation takes us – into ordinary ordinariness.
This is another of the reasons why annunciation is such an apt subject for poetry and painting. Both can take us to the place where the material and spiritual worlds that real people really inhabit combine and interconnect. Great art, great poetry, great revelations of God, intensify such connections. And they stop us in our tracks precisely because we do not see them coming. They are beyond our imagination and yet they only happen when our imagination is engaged. Such moments might, on reflection, make us admire the artist or writer, but in the first instance they draw us away from all sense of artistic appreciation to a deeper attention to reality. They draw us to see how mysteriously charged is the ordinariness of everyday – how divinely it is infused.
One day I was driving on my own in Surrey. I turned on the radio. It was broadcast of ‘Under Milk Wood’. I was absolutely arrested by it, and so like Moses when he saw the burning bush, I turned aside: for me this involved stopping the in a lay-by so that I could give my full attention to listening. In poetry like this realism and beauty, realism and pathos, realism and intense presence, all come together in way that is charged with the kind of ordinariness that lies at the heart of annunciation and sacrament.
Take these lines about getting up in the morning:
All over the town, babies and old men are cleaned and put into broken prams and wheeled on to the sunlit cockled cobbles or out into the backyards under the dancing underclothes, and left.
A baby cries and an old man’s voice is heard:
‘I want my pipe and he wants his bottle.’
The school bell rings:
Noses are wiped, heads picked, hair combed, paws scrubbed, ears boxed, and the children are shrilled off to school.
This is intense, knowing, loving ordinariness. The poet, and the listener, see both the surface and the depths, the dancing underclothes and the heart’s desire. ‘What’s the smell of parsley?’ moans a long dead sailor from under the sea in the dream of his friend. And we ourselves remember the joy of smelling parsley and dread that such joy might not be ours forever.
Muir sets the annunciation in the afternoon – the endless afternoon – and sees the angel and the girl in a deepening trance that will never break. Causley’s ballad takes us quickly through the child’s life to his death and risen life where he offers bread to those who say, ‘not today’. Dylan Thomas takes us through the whole day and invites us both to hear and share the prayer of the Reverend Eli Jenkins: a prayer which requires of us nothing more than the honesty, realism, hope and humility which are rightly ours in any Advent, on any occasion when we let ourselves imagine annunciation. For part of the advent reality is that we are not yet ready for the mutual never-breaking gaze with God of which Muir speaks. Rather our task for now is it to know that it is not we who get to gaze on God but God who lets his judging, healing, loving eye rest on us and who graciously withholds the last day while we learn to see what is before us in this world with loving eyes. So let’s ask Eli Jenkins to teach us how to look and pray in Advent.
Every morning when I wake,
Dear Lord, a little prayer I make,
O please do keep Thy lovely eye
On all poor creatures born to die.
And every evening at sun-down
I ask a blessing on the town,
For whether we last the night or no
I'm sure is always touch-and-go.
We are not wholly bad or good
Who live our lives under Milk Wood,
And Thou, I know, wilt be the first
To see our best side, not our worst.
O let us see another day!
Bless us all this night, I pray,
And to the sun we all will bow
And say, good-bye - but just for now!