On the Feast of the Annunciation
Sermon preached by Anna Higgins at St. Mary Orthodox Church on Sunday, March 25, 2018
This is the final Sunday of Women’s Month, concluding our series of homilies focusing on the festal icons dedicated to the Mother of God. We have been on a journey from her conception and birth, her entry into the Temple and her Dormition. Today, on the Feast of the Annunciation we honor this amazing moment in history.
So much depends on Mary saying “Yes” to the angel. This is the fulcrum around which our whole lives are based. This is the moment when she goes from being Mary to being the Theotokos.
I invite you to take a moment to look carefully at the icon in your hand. Let it show you something new about this feast, an aspect you may have not seen before.
I am struck by Mary’s posture, turned slightly away from the angel and showing a hand that suggests reluctance to accept this news. She offers a discerning question: “What manner of salutation is this?” She did not assume that she was worthy of this astonishing, unheard of idea that she might carry the Lord of all creation in her own body.
She does not seem perturbed by the angel, having been raised in the Temple, where she was ministered to by angels. She does not seem surprised by this appearance. (In contrast to most angelic appearances in the Bible, which generally provoke fear and trembling and often a tumbling to the ground by the recipients of the visitation). She is concerned by the awesome nature of the message.
Can you imagine this moment? The messenger of the Most High saying you are to bear God’s child? What could possibly be more bewildering? In the hymn “All of Creation Rejoices with Thee” there is a line that says “Thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens”. This idea, this expansion of familiar reality, is simply astounding, even for one raised in a state of great purity and singleness of heart - one raised within the Temple and offered the daily protections that nourished her great holiness.
But as we learned from the earlier stories represented by the icons of The Birth of the Virgin and by The Entry into the Temple, there was a braided element of ordinariness and holiness in the life of Mary. She is held, not so much as “other” and thus “better”, as much as exceptional in her inclination for purity and her single-minded focus on being close to the Lord.
She is us, in our highest yearnings. I hold that we all long to carry God in our bodies, in our hearts, and she offers a template. We have a taste of this when we partake of the Eucharist. As we can see, the Royal Doors have Angel Gabriel delivering the message on one side and Mary receiving, accepting, on the other side. These doors open onto the altar, to the place that allows us to receive communion, to bring the Body of Christ into our bodies.
In the icon she is holding a spindle, her feet spread apart, giving the sense that she is firmly planted on the earth (thought the pedestal beneath her feet is an indication that she is exalted as well). Spinning of cloth was an activity done by ordinary women, yet here there is the added meaning of her weaving the flesh of God into her womb.
In some Annunciation icons her gesture is that of humble acceptance, head slightly bowed, hand facing upwards as she accepts the message. “May it be to me according to your word”. There is a process here, from questioning to accepting. One of the great blessings of icons is that we are offered a window into holy happenings here on earth, events that are not static, but encompass a natural human movement from one state to another.
As is often the case in icons, one part of the story, of the mystery, is shown overtly and another is foreshadowed. The thread that Mary has in her hands is the same color of the draping above. Holy tradition says that she is spinning thread for the Veil of the Temple when the angel appears. We see the blade with a cross on it, indicating the crucifixion and the renting of the Veil of the Temple. We are offered a picture of the weight she is accepting as she says Yes.
We are all given moments in which we might say Yes to God.
I offer this example. My husband, and I prayed fervently for many years to have a child. We made pilgrimages, stormed heaven with avid prayers, and questioned God with angry bewilderment. We grieved, as we felt that God did not find us worthy. (I found some consolation in the life of St.Anna, my patron saint, as she and St. Joachim faced humiliation during their years of inability to bring forth a child). We resisted any suggestion about adopting a child, feeling that this was second best and we wanted first best.
We went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and made our prayers in many sacred places and felt God’s grace touch us deeply, but we still clung to the fixed wish for our own biological child.
Then we visited the shrine dedicated to the Annunciation, in Nazareth. The church stands above the place known as Mary’s Well, the place where women in the village came to gather water. (Another example of the braiding of the ordinary and the extraordinary in Mary’s life).
Something of a miracle happened. The holy shrines in Israel are usually very crowded with visitors and there is not much time for saturated prayer. but when we were at Mary’s Well the Israeli Army closed the shrine for a memorial service offered to honor an Arab soldier who died while in the Israeli Army.
The rest of our group stayed up in the church and attended the memorial service , but Jim and I and our friend Monica were magnetically drawn back down to the site of the well. We simply could not leave .It was the most remarkable experience I have ever known. We were saturated in grace, like spiritual Souvlaki: cooked on all sides from the centuries of prayer and devotion that had soaked into the very stone and made them radiant with blessing. Without discussing it or hesitating, I wrote on a scrap of paper a prayer to adopt a child and Jim and I placed it under a heavy brass cross that stood at the bottom of the stairway which was said to be the place that Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary. We finally stopped saying No and said, in essence, “May it be to me according to your word.”
Some time later, by another amazing series of events, we received our 1 day old daughter whose Arab roots eventually brought us here to St. Mary’s. Blessing upon blessing upon blessing. We were given the perfect child for our family. We finally said Yes.
Denise Levertov expresses this all so eloquently in her poem:
Annunciation by Denise Levertov
(‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’ From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece)
“We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, almost always a lectern, a book; always the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings, the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering, whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them. But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept like any other child – but unlike others, wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’ and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply, perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other, milk and love –
but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of, When she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, “I cannot. I am unworthy,” Nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light, the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
So much depends on Mary’s Yes.
So much depends on your Yes, my Yes
So much depends on our Yes.
May consent illumine us all.