Hymns of the Annunciation


Sermon preached by Natasha Smith at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on Sunday, March 27, 2016

This series of homilies given by the women of our parish focuses on the hymnography of the Lenten and Paschal seasons.  My subject today is the Kontakia for the Annunciation. The Kontakion, a short hymn that changes with the feast, is sung with the Antiphons right after the little entrance. This particular Kontakion, or a form of it, is sung at the beautiful Madayeh service on Friday nights in Lent.  It will be most familiar to you as “To thee, O Champion Leader.”

In its original form, a kontakion was a rather long hymn that was sung after the Gospel reading, meditating on its message. Today we usually only hear the opening verse of such a hymn. There are a number of kontakion written for the Annunciation. The excerpt that we sing today is from the Akathist (i.e. Madayeh) service and was possibly written by Romanos the Melodist. Romanos was one of the greatest Christian hymnographers in antiquity. He is said to be from the Middle East, possibly Damascus, and most likely lived in the 6th c. A number of his hymns have come down to us, including two additional kontakia for the Annunciation.

In one of these hymns, the Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she is going to be the vessel through which God will become human. Mary responds with initial doubt and hesitation, asking questions to verify Gabriel’s identity. She then considers his answers, and finally responds with acknowledgement and praises to God.  I invite you to look at the icon and read the full text of these poems (links are available below).

Today let us examine what we can learn about our relationship to God and His infinite love from these beautiful poems. For me, as a woman, the mere fact that my body could give life to another was a miracle. To add to the mystery of this experience for me, Theo was born 1 year to the day after the death of my mother. It didn’t seem like coincidence that after a multi-day labor, Theo was safely delivered just before midnight on that anniversary, hence his name, Theo-doron: “Gift of God”.  I am in awe of the double miracle of Jesus’s conception by the Holy Spirit and Mary’s humble response to what God asked of her. 

Now, try to imagine what it was like to be Mary. You are an adolescent girl of humble origins. Just like your daughter or niece, or perhaps you as a child. Maybe you were born in West Roxbury or Medford. You are visited by an angel and then the Holy Spirit at the same time. Personally, my first reaction would be to run and hide. But, not Mary.

In the first line of the poem, we are all invited to witness The Annunciation or announcement that The Theotokos will give birth to Jesus.   The poet (Romanos) beckons us: “Come, let us accompany the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, and let us greet her as mother and nourisher of our life.  For it is not only fitting for the general to salute the queen but it is also possible for the humble to see her and address her.”  The humble—that’s us. Not only does God send His Son to be born of a woman for our salvation, but we are invited to participate in the event. We have such a loving and accessible God.  Do we make room for Him in our daily lives?  If we don’t, it’s not God’s fault, but ours.

To make the Annunciation even more relatable to us, the poet creates a dialogue between Mary and The Archangel Gabriel in which she doubts who he really is. “I shall raise questions with you concerning what you have said.” The poet and our God also give her a choice. She and Gabriel go back and forth as to the reasons why she should mistrust him and his message that she will conceive and bear Jesus. She reminds the angel that Eve was “snatched away from her former glory” when she accepted the apple from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. She wants proof that this isn’t a ruse and he isn’t an agent of the devil.  Sounds like us and our relationship to God, doesn’t it? The poet emphasizes her human doubt to bring us closer to her experience. Like Mary, most of us choose suspicion when confronted with a stranger and a bizarre message.

But, Gabriel wins Mary over by saying this:

“From the Father was I sent to bring you this message,
for His Love has compelled Him so that His Son should reside in your womb,
And over you the Holy Spirit will reside.”

And her answer is:

“In that case, O watcher, I will not answer back:
If the Holy Spirit shall come to me,
I am his maidservant, and He has authority;
Let it be to me, sir, in accordance with your word.”

The Annunciation, celebrated here in the middle of lent is not just for Mary, but for us. In case we didn’t get the message back at Christmas time: joy has come into the world and is in the world.  God’s LOVE compelled him to send Christ for us. And we know from our daily prayers that the Holy Spirit is present everywhere and fills all things. How do we respond to God? Are we saying yes to him? Do we seek his will and desire his care and indwelling? Mary did and, in our humanity, in our response to God, we can be just like Mary.

Mary’s joyful response to God’s message given by Gabriel is praise and thanksgiving. Not only that, she, again, includes us in the experience.

“Let all heaven and earth (this is us) call him blessed;  
Let both the angel and the Virgin,
And all humanity (this is us) too, call Him holy,
For in His love He has descended and become a human being!” 

Finally, the Theotokos is teaching us how to respond to the miracle, by calling Him Blessed and Holy.  She is also confirming the ultimate gift of love: “He has descended and become a human being.” Through her actions and words at the Annunciation she is the model for our lives. Initial disbelief turns to humble acceptance and then joyful praise.

Every mother and father here can relate to the joy of holding a newborn for the first time. You are exhausted, anxious and relieved.  But the dominant feeling is overwhelming love and thanksgiving for a safe delivery. The child, who was a kick and an ultrasound for 9 months, now has a voice, a complexion and an appetite!  Instinctively you care for this helpless being without question. The conception of Jesus was an almost unimaginable miracle, but his birth was like each of ours (minus the star, the shepherds, the magi, the cave, and the fact that his mother remained a virgin). Can we make the same room in our hearts for Christ as we do for our biological children who are a gift from our Father only entrusted to us for this earthly life?  Reading these poems and reflecting on the Annunciation which is at once so familiar and yet remote from our experience opens our hearts to our Father’s unconditional love and gifts, so we can say like Mary:

“Let heaven and earth call Him blessed;
Let both the angel and the Virgin,
And all humanity too, call Him holy,
For in His love He has descended and become a human being!”

Supplementary Texts