The hymns for the Annunciation give us a rich harvest of the spiritual poetry in which Orthodoxy expresses truth in beauty. St. Gregory of Nyssa said the book of Genesis is not so much history as “doctrines in the guise of narrative.” Hymnology is doctrines in the guise of poetry.
The ability of narrative/story and hymns/poetry to express truth opens the heart in the mind to the creativity of God and rescues us from a wooden literalism and the rigorous straitjacket of rationalism. We will look below at some of these wondrous hymns and the theological world which like icons they open to our viewing.
The first hymn comes from the Prefeast of the Annunciation (March 24). All of power of the hymns is founded in the theology of the incarnation – the Word of God becomes flesh in the Virgin’s womb.
Since Christ is always God (from the very nanosecond He enters into creation He remains and is fully God), God dwells in Mary’s womb from the moment of conception and from that moment Mary is rightfully titled Theotokos. Since the incarnation of God is the re-uniting of divinity with humanity (ending the separation which had existed since the time of Eve and Adam’s sinful disobedience), it is proper to say that the salvation of us all comes through the Thetotokos. In this first hymn, Mary is compared to “the Palace of Light” – Christ the King is coming to take up abode in her so she is His palace. Christ enters into the world as it now is – not the world of Paradise but the world which is enslaved to our enemies, sin and death.
THE PALACE OF LIGHT IS READY FOR YOU, MASTER:
THE WOMB OF THE UNDEFILED CHILD OF GOD.
COME DOWN TO HER; COME TO VISIT YOUR FALLEN WORLD,
HELD IN BITTER SLAVERY TO THE JEALOUS ENEMY.
MANY AGES HAVE PASSED SINCE ITS BEAUTY WAS DESTROYED.
MAKE HASTE TO DESCEND TO EARTH, O LORD!
COME TO DELIVER US FROM THE WAY OF DEATH!
Beauty was a God-given characteristic of Paradise, God’s Garden of Delight. But the beauty of creation was destroyed by death which resulted from the Ancestral Sin of disobedience to God. Salvation consists of God reclaiming all of creation from the power of sin and death as we see in the meditation within the next hymn from Annunciation.
BEHOLD, OUR RESTORATION IS NOW MADE MANIFEST:
GOD IS INEFFABLY JOINED TO MAN.
AT THE WORDS OF THE ARCHANGEL, ERROR HAS VANISHED;
THE VIRGIN HAS RECEIVED THE JOYFUL NEWS,
AND THE THINGS OF EARTH HAVE BECOME THOSE OF HEAVEN.
THE WORLD IS RELEASED FROM THE ANCESTRAL CURSE.
LET THE WHOLE CREATION REJOICE, SINGING A HYMN OF PRAISE:
LORD, OUR CREATOR AND DELIVERER, GLORY TO YOU! (Matins Apostika)
In Orthodoxy salvation does not begin with the crucifixion or the death of Christ on the cross satisfying some legal demand for the restoration of justice in the universe. Salvation begins when the power of sin and death are confronted, which occurs at the moment of the incarnation in the Theotokos. At the moment of the Annunciation, God is already reclaiming creation, the world and all of humanity for Himself. Death is being exposed as an empty and unjust power which had usurped its authority by claiming sovereignty over all of creation.
Already at the Annunciation as the hymn notes “the things of earth have become those of heaven.” God in uniting Himself to humanity is already redeeming, transfiguring and transforming the world of the fall into the world of heaven: heaven is nothing else but the place where God abides. In the incarnation God is now abiding in the flesh, in this world, in His creation!
They hymns do tell us that the salvation of God is not limited to or by human reason and understanding. While the Virgin ponders the mystery of the Incarnation and reasonably questions the implication of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel poetically explains to her:
You seek to know from me the manner of your conceiving, Virgin,
but this is beyond all interpretation!
The Holy Spirit will overshadow you in His creative power,
and shall make this come to pass!
(Matins Canticle 3)
The Word becomes flesh in the Virgin. This exceeds any merely rationalistic explanation we might conceive to interpret the Scriptures. The incarnation, Mary’s conceiving of God in the flesh is not explainable by human reason, but rather is comprehensible only in and through the Holy Spirit. God is acting in and through His creation, transforming and transfiguring creation itself as well as human understanding. We can contemplate this mystery, but will enter into it only as an act of faith. It cannot be explained scientifically or by reason alone. God is doing something with creation which is equivalent to creating ex nihilo! A new creation has begun in the womb of the Theotokos. The Archangel Gabriel in the hymns draws our hearts and minds to the mysteries revealed to us in the Scriptures before Christ. The Old Testament prefigures and serves as a prototype to help us understand the New Covenant and new creation which God is revealing in Christ.
The bush that burned with fire and yet remained unconsumed
disclosed the mystery that shall come to pass in you.
For after child-birth, you shall remain ever-virgin,
pure Maiden, full of grace.
(Matins Canticle 4)
The Archangel points to the revelation Moses received when he encountered God speaking through the burning bush (Exodus 3) as a theological preparation for the mystery that was revealed in the incarnation of God at the Annunciation to the Theotokos. In Orthodox theology, the event of the burning bush through which God speaks to Moses, is not as important as a historical event as it is a prefiguring of the full revelation of God’s plan of salvation.
Thus the Old Testament is not so much history, nor is it to be focused on the past. Rather the Old Testament points to, directs our minds to and is fulfilled in the New.
The Old Testament’s main purpose is not to orient us to past history but rather it prepares us to understand God’s new revelation and new creation in Christ. It ultimately prepares us and orients us to the future when God restores all things in His Kingdom.
The hymns of the Feast help us enter into this theological understanding of time, for the hymn takes us not to the past, but tells us that today we are experiencing and entering into the events of the Feast. Today we experience the salvation of God as initiated by God in history but made present today by the Holy Spirit in the liturgical life of the Church. We experience this presence of God’s power and activity in history as the means for us to attain the Kingdom of God which is to come.
TODAY IS REVEALED THE ETERNAL MYSTERY!
THE SON OF GOD BECOMES THE SON OF MAN.
BY ACCEPTING THE LOWEST, HE GRANTS ME THE HIGHEST.
OF OLD, ADAM WAS DECEIVED: HE SOUGHT TO BECOME GOD
BUT HE DID NOT RECEIVE HIS DESIRE!
NOW GOD BECOMES MAN, THAT HE MAY MAKE ADAM GOD!
LET CREATION REJOICE; LET NATURE EXULT:
FOR THE ARCHANGEL STANDS IN FEAR BEFORE THE VIRGIN
AND SAYING: REJOICE! HE BRINGS HER THE GREETING BY WHICH OUR SORROW IS HEALED.
LORD, WHO IN YOUR COMPASSION BECAME A MAN, GLORY TO YOU! (Matins Praises)