To Be Human is to Love Others

We humans were created in the image of God.  One of the main implications of this for Christians is that we are created in the image of a Trinitarian God, a God who is three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and the three share a communal love for each other.   We humans were created as communal or relational beings, to live in love and harmony with each other, to share the common human life.  To live in relationship to God, creation and one another is the Paradise God made for us.  We were never created to be isolated, alienated individuals.  We share a common nature, we share the same planet, we all have the same Creator.

But that Paradise was shattered because people did not value love and community, but wanted to assert their individual life as more important than anything else including more important than one’s relationship with others.  In Gen 3:6  we get a glimpse into Eve’s mind –  “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.”  From her  individual point of view, Eve could see nothing wrong with eating of the forbidden fruit.  What she ignored was that her life was lived in relationship with God and Adam and creation.  Her sin shattered the relationships which existed leading us to the broken, fallen world in which we find ourselves.

We humans were created by God to share in the divine love shared by the Father, and the son and the Holy Spirit.  We were created to participate in the Divine Life and Love, but we humans chose to rather assert our individualism over and against all else that exists.  And that is why the world we live in is not Paradise.  By sin we break the mutual bonds of love which were meant to bind us together in life.

But the God who is Love shows us in the event of the Annunciation that Divine Love is still available to us, for God’s love is not only relational and communal – a love and life to be shared by all – but it is also incarnational.  God became human, entering the human condition in Mary’s womb, revealing to us that we humans still have the capacity for loving as God loves.

Christianity is that putting on ourselves the divine love and life.  Christianity is not something like clothes which we can put on and take off, but rather Christianity is about our human nature, who and what we are.  It is about our participating in the divine life.

The Virgin Mary at the Annunciation is a human person who becomes infused with  and inseparable from the Holiness of God.   She is the model human person.  And so she says to God:  Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

Mary says to God, “not my will, but your will be done”.  Mary is not interested in asserting her individualism, but rather is willing to embrace the divine love for humanity and do what is good and necessary for all the people of the world, indeed for all creation.

The Feast of the Annunciation – in which the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary tells us that sacred people or sacred places are a sign that holiness – that God Himself – can be experienced in life.  We receive not only what is God’s, but we receive God into our own lives.

Icons, the Holy Communion, saints, the church building are the signs of God’s mysterious presence in our world and in our life.  We are striving to make God’s presence personal to ourselves.    Mary and all the saints tell us that we can share in the life of the Holy Trinity.

But to do so, we need to be willing to deny ourselves in order to love as God loves us.

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The Annunciation (2018)

St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople  gave a sermon in the late 9th Century on the Feast of the Annunciation which celebrates the events described in Luke 1:24-38.  He reveals in his words the theological and cosmic importance of the Feast.

“Gay is today’s festival, and splendid is the joy it conveys to the ends of the earth. The joy it yields banishes the cures of the world, inaugurates the raising of him who fell long ago, and pledges salvation to all of us. An angel converses with a virgin, and the whispering of the serpent is made idle, and the impact of his plot is averted. An angel converses with a virgin and Eve’s deceit fails, and convicted nature, seen to rise about condemnation, as it had been before condemnation is enriched with the possession of paradise as its portion. He speaks to the Virgin, and Adam receives a pledge of liberty, and the serpent, instigator of evil, is deprived of his tyranny over our kind, and is dispossessed of his authority, and learns now that he had armed himself in vain against Creation. His devices against us weaken, as an incorporeal being brings the message of the invincible trophy against sin: for Christ’s cross and willing suffering are death and sin swallowed up in victory, and such also is His suffering through the Incarnation.

The angel is now bearing the good tidings of the Incarnation, in which tidings we are rejoicing today, and whose festival we are celebrating. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and human nature is renewed; for, having quaffed the tidings like a remedy of salvation, it spits out all the poison of the serpent, and is cleansed from the spots of its disease. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and the bond of sin is being torn up, and the penalty for the disobedience is abolished, and the universal recall is pledged in advance. Today the tidings of joy have arrived, since the archangel is exchanging words with the virgin maiden, the commander of the invisible host is conversing with Mary, espoused to Joseph but designated and preserved for Jesus. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 112-113)

An historical note about March 25 and the Annunciation:

…the origin of the solemnity on the fifth Saturday of Great Lent is linked to a shift in the feast of Annunciation. We know that, in the spirit of Canon 51 of the Council of Laodicea (c. 365), it was not appropriate to celebrate feasts during Great Lent, and such celebrations consequently had to be shifted to the following Saturday or Sunday. It was only the Council in Trullo (692) that decided to celebrate Annunciation on the very day (March 25).”   (Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, p. 200)

God’s Kingdom Springs Forth from the Theotokos

“My Lady Mary–

What knowledge bedecks you, what chastity crowns you!

Just as sin once brought the Kingdom of Death to power,

So your grace makes the Kingdom of Justice spring forth.

Just as the Sunrise dispels the shadows of the dawn,

So too the light of faith in your Son dispels the darkness of sin.

Blessed is he who seeks after your love,

Whose footsteps tread the threshold of your house at break of day;

Such a man will be satisfied with your blessings, filled to abundance.

(Enzira Sebhat, Harp of Glory: An alphabetical Hymn of Praise for the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, p. 52)

Our Salvation Depends on The Theotokos

September 8 for Orthodox is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

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“Rational man suffered even more, awaiting his liberation. For this reason, mankind offers the highest gift to Christ Who becomes man: His Virgin Mother.

In fact, we men had nothing more honorable to offer God. The Panaghia(‘Pan Aghia’: ‘All Holy Mother of God’) had already offered herself entirely to God, and as a most pure vessel was ready to receive in her womb her Son and her God and so, at her Annunciation, when Archangel Gabriel told her that she would become the Mother of Christ, she could answer with confidence in God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word’ [Luke 1:38].

Moreover, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God if she had not offered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God would not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say ‘Yes’ to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have – human nature – in order that God might give man what he did not have – deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God’s free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.

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This mutual freedom is the prerequisite for love. God offers freely without any necessity, and the Virgin accepts the gift freely without compulsion. The Virgin could not co-operate with God if she had established her own egoistic satisfaction at the content of her freedom – rather than her offering to God and man. Moreover, the Virgin is always rightly blessed by all generations of Christians, and especially during these holy days, as the: ‘cause of the deification of all.’ At the same time, she points out the way of true freedom.” (George Capsanis, The Eros of Repentance, pp. 68-70)

The Hidden Mystery is Now Revealed

“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”  (Romans 16:25-27)

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose which he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12)  [emphases not in original texts]

In the Pauline corpus of writings, there are numerous references to Christ being God’s mystery hidden from all eternity and which God now reveals in  Jesus.  The mystery is a revelation about the nature of God – God is Trinity.  The mystery is a revelation about God’s own abilities to limit Himself and to enter into His creation in the incarnation.  They mystery is about what a human is – capable of being united to divinity, capable of sharing the divine life.    All of this we celebrate in the Feast of the Annunciation.  One of the hymns from the prefeast of the Annunciation proclaims:

THE MYSTERY HIDDEN FROM ALL ETERNITY,                                

UNKNOWN EVEN BY THE ANGELS,                                          

IS NOW ENTRUSTED TO THE ARCHANGEL GABRIEL.                           

HE WILL COME TO YOU, PRECIOUS VESSEL;                               

HE WILL SALUTE YOU, CRYING IN JOY:                                   

REJOICE, PURE DOVE!  REJOICE, ALL HOLY ONE!                    

MAKE READY BY YOUR WORD TO CONCEIVE THE WORD OF GOD!  

 

The time comes for God to reveal the mystery: His plan for humankind is theosis.  It was always God’s plan to share the divine life with humanity.  It is given to the Archangel Gabriel to announce this plan of salvation of God entering into His own creation: God becomes that which is “not God”!  The Archangel comes from the throne of heaven to a backwater village, to an impoverished, young maiden.  The Archangel must have been amazed himself to the surroundings he could see when talking to the Virgin.  The incarnation defied belief, but then the very life God the Son embraced was poverty in the boondocks of Palestine.  Yet this is the very place where God begins the salvation of the world.

“… I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.   For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 1:25-2:3)

“For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9)

 

Evil is Converted By a Woman

As we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, we can reflect on the role of the Virgin Mary in the salvation of the world by considering the words of Orthodox Theologian Paul Evdokimov:

“Evil is not destroyed by a man but is converted by a woman.” (In the World, of the Church, p. 165)

In Mary, the sinful flesh of fallen humans is transformed by Christ into a humanity once again capable of theosis.   The flesh is not destroyed but converted!  The incarnation of the Word of God means the flesh, this world, all of history are capable of being redeemed by God.  The fasting of Great Lent is not meant to destroy the flesh but to convert it to being receptive to and capable of bearing the Word of God and the deification that comes to those who unite themselves to Christ.

Evdokimov continues:

“Sharing organically in the descent from Adam, participating in the common destiny of all mankind, Mary, however, was kept from all personal impurity. Every evil was rendered inoperative in her. It is this dynamism, this human reaction so royally free, that Nicholas Cabasilas stressed in synthesizing the Patristic tradition. A human being cannot be saved without the free agreement of his own will. ‘The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of his power and of the Holy Spirit, but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the consent of the most Pure One, without the agreement of her faith, this plan would not have been realizable except through the intervention of the Three Divine Persons themselves. It was not until after having instructed and persuaded her that God took Mary to be his Mother, and took from her the flesh that she was willing to give to him. Just as he wished to become incarnate, so too did he wish that his Mother would give birth to him of her own free will.’

The objective action of her motherhood coincided with the action of her personal, active holiness. This is why she is eternally Theotokos, bearer of God and Panagia, the Mother Most-Holy. In her saying fiat, “Let it be done,” she has become Mother, not only in external obedience but also inwardly, by her love of God who came to her. With the Holy Spirit, she was made Theotokos.“ (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church, pp. 169-170)

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

(Luke 1:38)

The Feast of the Annunciation (2017)

St Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us that Jesus was not adopted by God only when Jesus dies on the cross.  Jesus did not become God’s Son only at age 30 when He began His public ministry.  Jesus is God’s Son at the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  He was already beginning then His ministry of salvation.  St. Nikolai writes:

“Lastly, there is an important reason on the general, human level for the Lord Jesus’ going to Egypt, and not to some other country. He did not begin His earthly  mission only at the age of thirty, when He opened His divine lips and began to teach. He began His mission at his conception. At His conception by the Holy Spirit, He already had a follower. This was the holy Mother of God. Was not Joseph converted to Christ before His birth? Did not His birth open heaven to the shepherds and fill the astrologers from the East with truth, prayer, and immortality? Did not Herod, together with the hardened leaders and scribes of Jerusalem, fall away from Him and stand against Him while He still lay in the manger? As soon as He was conceived, He became the cornerstone of the palace of salvation, and a stumbling-block to others. As soon as He was conceived, the world around him began to be divided into sheep and goats. Above all, Mary and Joseph were for a short time divided in their view of Him. While Mary knew Him to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Joseph thought Him the fruit of sin. This division lasted only a short time.

But the division made at His birth between, on the one hand, the shepherds and eastern astrologers, and Herod and the wise men of Jerusalem on the other, never came to an end. He came to sow, and at the same time to winnow. And He began his work from His conception in human flesh, right through to His death and glorious Resurrection, and from His Resurrection to this day, and from this day to the Last Judgement. He did not come into the world just to be a thinker. He lept into the drama of human life, as into the darkness of Egypt, to be light and leader, thinker and actor, sacrifice and victor. Indeed, He began His work in the world at that moment when His messenger, the great Archangel Gabriel, came down to Nazareth and announced His coming.”   (Homilies, pp. 53-54)  

The Gospel Lesson of the Annunciation:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

The Annunciation: the Kenotic Mary

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

“The dogma of the Annunciation is not the revelation of a solitary and autocratic God; nor is the Annunciation a story of human subservience to that God.  Mary is called to an act of kenosis (self-emptying, suffering love), imitative of her own Son’s, even before he himself has revealed it to the world. For by conceiving the holy child, she risks humiliation and social ostracism. But whatever the Father asks of the mother, he asks also of his Son, who “emptied Himself… taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5-11, NKJV).

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a reading for the feast of the Birth of the Mother of God. St. Paul argues that the kenosis of the Son of God lights the way toward a religious affirmation of human freedom and holiness. The true end of human freedom is voluntary self-limitation in loving service to others and to God. God holds to this law of love when he condescends to become one of us. Mary is the first human being to obey this command wholly and consummately.”  (Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 702ff)

Rejoice, Theotokos, Bridge to Heaven

Seeking to know the incomprehensible, the Virgin cried to the ministering spirit: “Tell me, how can a son be born from a chaste womb?”

And in fear, he answered, crying out:

Rejoice, initiate of God’s secret counsel!

Rejoice, faith in that which must be guarded by silence!

Rejoice, prelude of Christ’s miracles! Rejoice, crown of his teachings!

Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down!

Rejoice, bridge which conveys men from earth to heaven!

Rejoice, wonder of angels, blazed abroad!

Rejoice, wound of demons bewailed afar!

Rejoice, for ineffably you bore the Light!

Rejoice, for you revealed your secret to none!

Rejoice, wisdom surpassing the knowledge of the wise!

Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of the faithful!

Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc. 2374-82)

He Bowed the Heavens to Lift Us Up to Him

It is God’s good pleasure to raise humanity to heaven, to dwell with our Creator.  To accomplish humanity’s ascension, God descends to earth in the incarnation and becomes human.   They way to heaven for us is not to escape our humanity, but to unite ourselves to the God-man Jesus Christ.   God descends to earth in order to raise us up to heaven.  God even goes further than this for Christ descends into Hades to free death’s captives and to bring all humankind to life with God.

“However, God who made us looked lovingly down on us in His mercy. He bowed the heavens and came down. Having taken our nature upon Him from the Holy Virgin, He renewed and restored it. Or rather, He led it up to divine and heavenly heights. Wishing to achieve this, to bring fulfillment on this day His pre-eternal counsel, He sent the archangel Gabriel, as Luke the evangelist tells up, ‘to Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary’ (Luke 1:26-27).” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p102)