The Annunciation, a royal pregnancy and the death of a nurse


Luke 1:26 - 56 & Luke 2:1 -20: I didn't read these texts in the service - I only pointed to them - because I wanted people to see that behind Luke's many beautiful words there are in fact only intense, private and creative moments and places about which we can only imagine - as Luke (and the tradition) clearly has.

Mary’s Poem by Kathleen Wakefield

When she heard infinity
whispered in her ear, did the flashing
scissors in her fingers fall
to the wooden floor and the spool unravel,
the spider's sly cradle
tremble with love? Imagine

How the dry fields leaned
toward the news and she heard, for a moment,
the households of crickets –
When she answered, all things shifted, the moon
in its river of milk.

And when she wanted to pluck
her heart from her breast, did she remember
a commotion of wings, or the stirring
of dust?


Few of us can have escaped the torrent of news this week about the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy. However, as an ardent avoider of all things Royal, until Friday my strategies had been pretty successful and, at least in terms of its impact the story was having upon my general existence, it had been pretty negligible. However, the news of Mrs Jacintha Saldanha's suicide (she was the nurse who put through a prank call from two Australian DJs claiming to be the Queen and the Prince of Wales) went straight through all my psychological defenses. On hearing the news I really did feel a blow land physically upon my being and it caused me to say out loud, although I was quite alone, "Oh no". I'm sure since hearing the news all of our hearts have gone out, not only to Mrs Saldanha herself but to her family, friends and colleagues and also to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

One might say many things about this event, an event which many public commentators have almost unanimously been calling "tragic" but, today, initially I would like to gather my thoughts around this word. The word is increasingly being used by our culture in a very loose way to refer to any kind of story with a sad ending and, if that is the definition of tragedy then Mrs Saldanha's story is clearly one. But most of you will be aware that this is not the classical definition of tragedy. Here's Aristotle's own definition from his Poetics:

A tragedy . . . is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. Here by 'language with pleasurable accessories' I mean that with rhythm and harmony or song superadded; and by 'the kinds separately' I mean some portions are worked out with verse only, and others in turn with song (Poetics VI, trans. Ingram Bywater). 

There are many things I might also say about this definition of tragedy but, today, I want to focus on just one, namely, that it "effects catharsis."

The word means "purging" and it brings with it, very appropriately today, medical resonances. In the context of an Aristotelian tragedy the emotions of pity and fear (though there are, of course, other emotions involved) are aroused in order to purge something, or an excess, of them so that we might achieve in ourselves a healthy balance of pity and fear. In short a classical tragedy was designed, in part, to help it's audience prepare to live together a more confident, more self- and world-aware life.

(For a good introduction to Tragedy follow this link to some Oxford University podcasts on the subject.) 

One possible result of this was expressed pithily by the British playwright Howard Barker who said you should "emerge from tragedy equipped against lies." Barker is referring, of course, not only to the lies of others but also the lies we are prepared to tell ourselves. Barker finishes this thought by adding that, "after the musical, you're anybody's fool" (Barker, Howard: Arguments for a Theatre, London, John Calder, 1989).

Barker's thought makes me ask whether our culture's popular media as a whole is concerned to do anything more than merely entertain us? For the most part I don't think it is and this is why, unless, Mrs Saldanha's suicide is made part of a true tragedy - i.e. we tell her story in such a way that it brings with it a proper catharsis - then we will most surely have betrayed a person who, as a nurse and mother, clearly dedicated her life to the healing and well-being of others. If we do not make an attempt to do this then we will only be contributing thoughtlessly to the media's creation of the popular entertainment that is "The Expected Royal Heir" - an entertainment which, if we continue to buy into it, will make us, perhaps even already *has* made us "anybody's fools."

But I cannot offer you this as a stand alone tragedy today. To write such a piece requires from any author (and the culture in which they live) considerable time and a very deep reflection upon the story and its characters. However, I am, and we are, fortunate that the season of Advent offers us access to something important which can help us think through Mrs Saldanha's death in a such that there arises before us the possibility of a catharsis that might help, not only redeem and restore to Mrs Saldanha's life and death worth and dignity, but also to begin to restore those same things to our own culture. At the very least, I hope that what we see will better equip us against what seems to me to be a serious lie propounded endlessly by our present-day culture. What this lie is we'll come to in a moment. But to get there we'll go firstly to the Advent and Nativity stories.

I think it is vital to notice that these, some of our culture's most important foundational stories, are characterised by a profound silence and privacy.

To be sure Luke begins his story with a dialogue he claims took place between Mary and the angel Gabriel but it is clearly an imagined one for there is obviously no one else present. Behind the flurry of Luke's words we need to be absolutely clear that there is really only a private silence into which we, like Luke, must imaginatively place ourselves. I particularly value the poet Kathleen Wakefield's attempt at this because she is careful not to distort this private silence - in fact I think her images only serve to heighten our sense of how Mary recognised that something was going on - so she gives us not facts and explanations but simply the falling flashing scissors and spool, a trembling spider's web, the gentle leaning in of a ready to harvest field and the quiet sound of crickets. These images don't attempt to give us any facts or explanation (which Luke most certainly tries to give us) but instead serve to pull us more deeply into that mysterious, expectant, private silence in which even the ordinary everyday things that surround us can speak to us silently of the joyful news of the coming of a wholly new world of creative meanings and possibilities.

After the visit of the angel recall, too, that Luke tells us that Mary goes to her relative Elizabeth, whom the angel has also made pregnant, and that the two of them stay together for three months. That's a long stay and we might expect many words about what transpired between them. Once more Luke succumbs to the temptation to give us some facts and explanations but, again, it is clear that behind them all there is really only a silence which he (and the tradition) has had to enter imaginatively and not actually.

This underlying silence continues to the very end of the Advent and Nativity narratives when Luke concludes by saying that Mary, in her own heart, ponders all the things that have happened to her. Here at last, Luke doesn't fill the silence and he (and the tradition), thankfully, resists trying to tell us anything about Mary's thoughts. Neither does Kathleen Wakefield. Instead, it seems that she transports us to a much later time as Mary is looking at her son dying on the cross. Wakefield imagines Mary, as her very heart seems to be being plucked from her breast, whether even the visitation of such a mighty and powerful thing as the angel Gabriel was anything more than a commotion of wings and the stirring of dust. Again we get a sense of how quiet and allusive were those places and times connected with Mary's Annunciation (pregnancy).

For me, all this helps reveals the lie of which I spoke earlier. Our culture has increasingly come to think that our shared public stories are at their best when they are vicariously centred upon, and noisily filled with, action and as many "facts" and photos as possible. Whether these are discovered via prank telephone calls made by DJs, illustrated through the thick end of a telephoto lens wielded by the paparazzi, or through someone leaking confidential information, it matters not.

As I noted last week courtesy of Tim Ingold, our culture has become dangerously reliant upon on "the unexpected to assure itself that events are taking place and that history is being made." We are now prone to believe that if nothing obvious is happening, nothing is happening. In consequence our culture puts more and more pressure upon people like the two DJs and the paparazzi to make news by pushing themselves endlessly into every quiet, private nook and cranny to see everything, to report everything.

(It's worth noting here in connection with Aristotle's definition of tragedy above - although I didn't in the actual address - that these are stories which are just "recited" to us on various rolling news-channels, radio stations and web-newspapers. However, the Advent - and Christmas - stories are one which we know in a much more dynamic, "dramatic" way as we tell them to each other in our nativity plays, liturgies, poems, hymns, songs and music.)

This need to make the news means, in turn, that we seem rapidly to be loosing an understanding that at the heart of any healthy culture there must be many quite, private and silent places where new things are given the space and time to be conceived, to grow in the warmth and dark, to be born and then for all these things to be pondered in our hearts on quietly and unobserved. Only after all this are these new things and visions brought out into the world to be used and enacted.

As a nurse connected with a maternity unit and also as a mother herself it seems reasonable to suggest on the basis of what we have already heard from the hospital authorities that Mrs Saldanha saw that she had been unwittingly forced to play a part in allowing the destruction of just such a private, creative and silent place. Not only that, of course, but she did it in a context that meant it became very, very public. The weight of this realisation - perhaps coupled with other things about her situation that we do not know (nor need to know) - proved for her to be fatal.

However, it is not enough simply to say that this is a tragedy for it to be a true tragedy. Unless we begin properly to consider changing our ways by Mrs Saldanha's shocking suicide then her death will most certainly have been in vain. If, however, it is taken seriously by us and it begins to functions for our culture as a cathartic purgation of an obsession with endless facts and activity (and mere vicarious "entertainment") and returns us to a sense of the absolute necessity for our society to be centred on private, silent places of becoming, then her death can become part of a proper tragedy and Mrs Saldanha will not have died in vain.

It is only into these kinds of places that the real news, the real good-news (gospel) is conceived, born and nurtured - namely, a new creation, a new way of being that will enable us all to dwell together in genuine peace and goodwill.

May she rest in peace.