Pride – Dr Susan Gillingham

The Sin of Pride and the Annunciation Window

In last week’s sermon, our chaplain illustrated how sermons on the Seven Deadly Sins were very much a fourteenth century phenomenon, epitomized by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Now I would never dare to argue with Emma as an authority on the piety in the Middle Ages, but my own reading has made me see that the numbering of deadly sins can be traced back to biblical times. The seven oracles against the sins of seven foreign nations is a frequent feature in the prophets; and in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene has seven demons which need casting out; and the Apostle Paul offers a list of fourteen ‘sins of the flesh’ in Galatians 5. The counting of sins, even using the number seven (sometimes, intriguingly, seven plus one) was not unique to the Middle Ages, although it was clearly popularized then. It was an early tradition. Even by the fifth century, John Cassian, from southern Gaul, argues that Adam and Eve were guilty of all the seven deadly sins when they took from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. A century or so later, Gregory the Great, writing from Rome, develops Cassian’s ideas and lists the seven sins of Adam and Eve in order, starting with the spiritual and ending with the carnal. The Sin of Pride heads Gregory’s list as the cardinal spiritual sin, out of which come Envy and Anger; and then, the carnal sins – Sloth, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Lust. By the fourteenth century Chaucer, in The Parson’s Tale, similarly speaks of the ‘barren tree of sin’ which has its roots in Pride, and ‘of this roote spryngen certain branches’. And as we heard from our chaplain last week, Dante, in The Divine Comedy holds the same view: of the deadly seven sins which are purged on their way to purgatory, Pride comes first.

But Medieval preaching and teaching did not just focus on vices and evils. The Books of Hours and the Morality Plays had a good deal to say about Christian virtues as well. Several lists of seven virtues ‘offset’ the seven sins – the seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven penitential psalms, the seven gifts of the spirit, the seven words from the cross, the seven wounds of Christ. The cardinal spiritual virtue underlying these lists is Humility, for as Pride takes us far from God, Humility leads the sinner to repentance. In a sense, Pride and Humility are two sides of the same coin: we overcome the Sin of Pride by the Grace of Humility.

It may surprise you that this chapel, designed in part to echo the theology of the Middle Ages, offers several insights into this theme. Clearly the nineteenth-century architect, William Burgess, enjoyed the number seven: look around at the seven stained glass windows, each in their different ways designed to show Christ as the Light of the World; look at the seven scrolls above each window, showing how the narrative in the window was foretold in the Old Testament; look at the seven friezes below the windows, which develop a theme in the window and also echo parts of the Te Deum on the dado underneath; and in the antechapel there are seven symbols of Judaism, representing what Burgess saw as the ‘old order’. Burgess even developed the ‘seven + one’ theme in his illustration of the eight virtues, four from natural religion (justice, perseverance, purity and moderation), and four from revealed religion – adding, most appropriately for this sermon, the virtue of ‘humility’ to the usual trio of faith, hope and charity.

Some of you will know that in recent sermons I’ve chosen to focus each time on one of the stained glass windows. I have to date preached on five of them. It might not take you long to discern which window I am intending to use tonight, as an illustration of the Grace of Humility overcoming the Sin of Pride: you have a copy of it in your pew, as the window cannot be seen at this time of day. It is on the north side of the chapel, nearest the door – the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to Mary.

By the Middle Ages, Mary, as one representing so well the Grace of Humility, was often contrasted with Eve, associated, as noted in the works of John Cassian and Pope Gregory, with the Sin of Pride. Interestingly, Burgess always placed these two figures in close proximity. Steeped as he was in Medieval typology, one cannot help think that this was intentional. Mary is a key figure in the East Window, where beneath the cross she mourns the death of her son. By contrast, in the ceiling above her, you can see Eve in the Garden of Eden, about to take the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Mary is also portrayed in the windows on either side of the entrance to the chapel – one is our Annunciation window, and in the other, now darkened, is of the visit of the Magi. Her self-sacrificial love is evident at the beginning of her son’s life as well as at the end of it. Look up at the ceiling between these two windows: we again see Eve, ironically surrounded by the four natural virtues, being expelled from the Garden. Eve’s Sin of Pride is that she thought she loved herself more than she loved God; she had hoped the fruit would give her a power equal to his. Eve’s choice, freely given to her by God, takes the couple out of the paradise garden and so to mortality and death; Mary’s choice, without understanding how or why, leads her to the foot of the cross, although from there, to immortality and life beyond.

Let us reflect for a moment on this Annunciation window. Burgess’s artist, Henry Holiday, has produced a design with a typically stylized account of the scene. Mary is sitting (usually she is either reading or sewing, in receptive mode: here she is reading, probably from a text in Isaiah), with the Angel behind her. The scroll above the window identifies her as the ‘virgin’ spoken by the prophet Isaiah who will conceive and bear a son, thus highlighting that this moment is not accidental, but is part of the divine plan. We see the white lily near Mary, a symbol of purity – and death. We see the vines behind the angel, symbols of fecundity – and life. There is no dove, but the rose-hued colour of the angel’s wings signifies the cleansing power of the spirit. What is particularly unusual about this scene is that seems to set outside, rather than in the house in Nazareth: did Burgess intend to suggest that the promise of new life is made in another and different Garden than the one Adam and Eve had to leave?

The problem with stylized representations, typical of Medieval and Renaissance art, is that the human aspects of this dreadful choice, and its awesome consequences, are rarely brought out. As we see in this window, and indeed in all the four windows where she appears in this chapel, Mary remains an enigmatic, mysterious figure, passive, resigned, perhaps too devoid of personality to attract us to the Humility she represents. For human details we need to turn instead to the narrative itself. We heard in our earlier reading, from Luke, that Mary was ‘espoused’ to Joseph: her likely age would thus be between sixteen and eighteen. She is thus both vulnerable and innocent: our window has at least depicted something of this as she looks up at the angel. We also know that Joseph (who perhaps also deserves a sermon on the Grace of Humility) was known as a te,ktwn in Greek – one skilled in wood and stone, a carpenter and builder – perhaps what we would call a ‘skilled laborer’. And from the sacrifice of just two pigeons that Mary and Joseph made in the Temple as a thanksgiving for a safe birth, it is clear that Joseph’s craft did not bring in much wealth. So her age, her social class, her poverty made her an extraordinary choice for the ‘Mother of God’.

Immediately after the Annunciation, Luke accords to Mary a song we hear sung every Sunday Evensong – the Magnificat. It illustrates so clearly God favours those of low estate, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts. ‘…He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. ’ This suggests that Mary’s material poverty encouraged a spiritual dependency which enabled her to trust in God alone. The Grace of Humility was at work in her before her calling, rather than being a result of it, and it was this was equipped her for a lifetime of self-sacrificial love.

But doesn’t this picture of Mary, materially and spiritually poor, equally distance her from us thus making the Grace of Humility an impossible goal to imitate? Our chapel window offers a part-answer to this. Look at the frieze under it, above the dado. There you see various figures of authority in Church and State – a Bishop, a Priest, two monks, two nuns, a King, a Queen, a Noblewoman, a Lawyer, an Academic; some of them, such as the King, were drawn in the likeness of well-known figures in and around Oxford (King Olaf, it is argued, was remarkably similar to a Tutorial Fellow called Daniel who later became Provost). It seems that here Burgess invites us to enter the story of the Annunciation and the Magnificat: each of these figures, with their various gifts and vocations, different from each other and certainly from Mary, are shown as making their own choice of seeking that poverty of spirit which Mary exemplified. And so we, the onlookers, each with our own various gifts and vocations – Provost, Chaplain, Preacher, Fellows, Lecturers, Teachers, Politicians, Parents, Graduates, Scholars, Undergraduates, Sacristans, Choir Boys – we, the onlookers, whoever we are, whatever are calling, are offered that similar choice: to put aside self-esteem and self-absorption and to pursue instead poverty of spirit whereby all that we are and all that we have is offered back to God.

We will often get it wrong. We might even be so pleased to have achieved a small part of the Grace of Humility we end up falling back into the Sin of Pride. But we need not give up. As you walk out of chapel tonight, under the frieze of Adam and Eve expelled from the garden, aware of Mary facing her challenge within that other garden, do look up at the last text Burgess has given us, above the West Door: ‘Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts’: – ‘Be it unto me according to your word.’

Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow and Tutor in Theology
22nd January 2006

About the author