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)

When Old Testament Miracles Give Life to the World

Bible story lovers can often recite the details of many of the miracles reported in the Old Testament – Noah and the flood, Moses and the burning bush, etc.  For many centuries, really from the beginning of Christianity, much of the Old Testament including its miracles were often interpreted as prefiguring Christ or were prophecies of Christ.  Take for example what use Jesus Himself makes of the story of the Prophet Jonah being swallowed by a whale:

 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.   (Matthew 12:38-41)

Jesus doesn’t discount the historicity of the story of Jonah, but sees it completely as a prophecy of his death and resurrection.  The Jonah “miracle” is actually seen by Christ as something of small importance as a historical event.  But as a prophecy of the resurrection it looks forward to its fulfillment in Christ, both in this world and on judgment day.

So, too, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, we see how the story of Noah and the flood are not viewed as events of great historical importance but rather are a prefiguring of baptism and salvation in Christ:

 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. 

St. Photius the Great (9th Century) gave a sermon for the Annunciation  in which he shows a typically Patristic interpretation of some Old Testament miracles.  All three miracles were interpreted by the early Church as prophecies of the Virgin birth.  The three events are miracles in their own right, but Photius notes that by themselves these miracles are really rather minor events that actually did not contribute in any meaningful way to the life of the world.  By themselves the “miracles” really don’t show the glory of God because they are rather nondescript.  It is only when they understood as prophecies of the Virgin Birth that their real importance is understood.  In the quote below, Photius has the Archangel Gabriel talking to the Virgin.

Gabriel tells her that it is not his job to interpret what God is doing or how God can accomplish the miracle of the incarnation of the Word of God.  However, God gave hints in the three Old Testament miracles which were given to help her and all of us understand the real miracle of the incarnation of God.  The three Old Testament miracles turn out to be rather small events but they both confirm the current big miracle of Christ and also help break it down into smaller events which we humans are better able to digest and comprehend.  When we bring together the three smaller events we begin to understand the real significance of the incarnation of God.  So the Archangel says these words to Mary:

“One thing I know, one thing I have been taught, one thing I have been sent to tell.  This I say: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee (Luke 35:1).  It is that which shall teach thee how thou shalt be pregnant.  It shall interpret how thou shalt conceive.  It is a participant in the Lord’s wish, since they are enthroned together, while I am a slave.  I am a messenger of the Lord’s commands, not the interpreter of this particular command.  I am the servant of His will, not the expounder of His intent.  The Spirit shall set everything in order, for it searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10).  I cry out, ‘Hail, much-graced one,’ and I praise the miracle in song, and worship the birth, but I am at a loss to tell the manner of the conception.  But if thou wishest to accept credence of my tidings by means of examples, inferring great things from small ones, and confirming the things to come by things past, — thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son in the same manner as Aaron’s rod was budded without cultivation, acting like a rooted plant (Num 17:23).  As the rain borned down from heaven on the fleece watered that alone but did not refresh the earth (Judges 6:37), thus thou too shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth the Lord.  This thy ancestor also, David, announces in advance, inspired by God of thy pregnancy: “He shall come down like rain upon a fleece, lie a drop falling upon the earth’ (Ps 71:6).  As the bush received the fire, and feeding the flames was not consumed (Exod 3:2), thus shalt thou conceive a son, lending Him thy flesh, providing nourishment to the immaterial fire, and drawing incorruptibility in return.  These things prefigured thy conception, announced in advance thy delivery, represented from afar thy pregnancy.  Those strange things have been wrought that they might confirm thy child’s ineffable birth.  They happened beforehand that they might delineate the incomprehensibility of the mystery: for the flaming bush, and the bedewed fleece, and the rod bearing leaves would not have contributed anything useful to life, nor would they have incited man to praise the Wonder-worker, nay, the miracle would have fallen to no purpose, unless they had been set down as prefigurations of thy giving birth, and been, as it were, the advance proclamations of the Lord’s coming. “ (THE HOMILIES OF PHOTIUS PATRIARCH OF CONSTANTINOPLE , Tr. Cyril Mango, p 119-120).

Photius was unimpressed by the three Old Testament miracles – one could easily imagine God doing greater things than these.  He feels no one who was told of these three Old Testament miracles would be over awed.  But when the events are read in the light of the incarnation of God in Christ, suddenly the importance of the three events is made clear – and that they are events significant to the life of the world is suddenly made known in the Virgin birth of the incarnate God.   In Christ, the events help explain what God is doing and how it is possible for God to enter into the human condition.  Mary does not need  long theological explanations about the incarnation – Gabriel tells her to think rather about the three stories, the three Old Testament miracles, and she will understand the significance for the entire world of her pregnancy.  The prophecies are fulfilled as well as given historical importance and cosmic meaning in Christ.  The incarnation of God the Word in the Virgin is made comprehensible by the events which prefigured and prophesied it.

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 to a Pure Heart

“There was a time when the heart of man was filled only with God – a mirror of the beauty of God, a harp for the praise of God.

There was a time when it was, in truth, in the hand of God, preserved from danger; but when man, in his madness, took things into his own hands, many wild beasts attacked the heart of man; and from there has, inwardly, come the bondage of the heart of man and, outwardly, that which is seen as the history of the world. Incapable of taking responsibility for his heart, man has looked for support to things – animate and inanimate – around him.

But whatever man has found to support his heart has fouled and wounded it. O wretched heart of man, seized on by many who have no right or power over you – as a pearl among swine! How hard you have become through your age- long slavery, and how darkened you are by the weight of darkness! God Himself has had to come down to free you from slavery, to save you from darkness, to heal you of your sinful leprosy and to take you once again into His own hand. The coming of God among men is the most gentle expression of His love for men, tidings of the greatest joy for the pure and the most devastating even for the impure of heart.

Like a flaming pillar in the deepest darkness, so is the coming of God among men. The news of this coming began with an angel and a maiden, with a conversation between heavenly and earthly purity. When an impure heart converses with an impure one, there is strife. Only when a pure heart converses with a pure one there is joy, peace and a great wonder. The Archangel Gabriel is the first messenger of the good news of man’s salvation, of this wondrous act of God’s – for the salvation of  man could not come about without God’s wondrous action.

The most pure Virgin Mary was the first to hear this good news and, first among human beings, trembled with fear and joy. Heaven was mirrored in her pure heart like the sun in clear water. Beneath her heart, the Lord, the Creator of the new world and Renewer of the old, was to lay His head and clothe Himself in flesh.” (Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p 2)

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)