Monday, March 26, 2018

The Announcement of the Incarnation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, March 25, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos. This great feast always falls during Great Lent, and when it falls on a weekday, is the only instance of having the full eucharistic Liturgy served for its commemoration. Clearly a sign of the feast’s significance. Thus, the Annunciation is something of a festal interlude that punctuates the eucharistic austerity of the lenten season. As it is, however, this year the Feast fell on a Sunday. 

Yet, because it does occur during Great Lent, this magnificent feast appears and disappears rather abruptly. It seems as if we have just changed the lenten colors in church to the blue characteristic of feasts dedicated to the Theotokos, when they are immediately changed back again! This is so because the Leavetaking of the Annunciation is on March 26. If we are not alert, it can pass swiftly by undetected by our “spiritual radar” which needs to be operative on a daily basis.

This Feast has its roots in the biblical passage in St. Luke’s Gospel, wherein the evangelist narrates that incredibly refined dialogue between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary (LK. 1:26-38). The angel Gabriel will “announce” the joyful news of the impending birth of the Messiah, and hence our English name of “Annunciation” for the Feast. However, the Greek title of Evangelismos is even richer in that it captures the truth that the Gospel – evangelion – is being “announced” in the encounter between God’s messenger and the young maiden destined to be the Mother of God. Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit is “Good News” for her and for the entire world! 

Even though the Feast of the Lord’s Nativity in the flesh dominates our ecclesial and cultural consciousness, it is this Feast of the Annunciation that reveals the Incarnation, or the “becoming flesh” of the eternal Word of God. It is the Word’s conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary that is the “moment” of the Word’s enfleshment. Hence, the Church’s insistence that a new human being begins to exist at the moment of conception. The Word made flesh – our Lord Jesus Christ – will be born nine months later on December 25 according to our liturgical calendar; but again, His very conception is the beginning of His human life as God-made-man. The troparion of the Feast captures this well:

Today is the beginning of our salvation; the revelation of the eternal Mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.

Was the Virgin Mary randomly chosen for this awesome role? Was she compelled to fulfill the will of God regardless of her spiritual relationship with God? Was she a mere instrument overwhelmed or even “used” by God for the sake of God’s eternal purpose? That the Virgin Mary was “hailed” as one “highly favored” or “full of grace” (Gk. kecharitōmenē) when the angel Gabriel first descended to her, points us well beyond any such utilitarian role for her. 

On the contrary, the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is understood and presented by the Church as the supreme example of synergy in the Holy Scriptures. The word synergy denotes the harmonious combination and balance between divine grace and human freedom that can occur between God and human beings. God does not compel, but seeks our free cooperation to be a “co-worker” with God in the process of salvation and deification. In this way, God respects our human self-determination, or what we refer to as our freedom or “free will.” 

 It is the Virgin Mary’s free assent to accept the unique vocation that was chosen for her from all eternity that allows her to become the Theotokos, or God-bearer. This is, of course, found in her response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement, and following her own perplexity: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 

This teaching on synergy finds its classical expression in a justifiably famous passage from St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ Homily on the Annunciation. The passage itself is often cited as an excellent and eloquent expression of the Orthodox understanding of synergy:

The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of the Father, Son and Spirit – the first consenting, the second descending, and third overshadowing – but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent.

We praise the Virgin Mary as representing our longing for God and for fulfilling her destiny so that we may receive the gift of salvation from our Lord who “came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man” (Nicene Creed):

Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee.
Hail, O pure Virgin; Hail, O Bride unwedded.
Hail, Mother of life: blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

(Dogmatikon, Vespers of the Annunciation)

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