The Orthodox sing in their hymns of the Feast of the Annunciation of strange tidings: “that God as man would be born a child of her without seed, fashioning again the whole human race! Proclaim, people, the good tidings of the re-creation of the world!”
These are strange tidings indeed. God conceived of a virgin? The re-fashioning of the whole human race? The re-creation of the world? The hymn reminds us that the Annunciation was an event that did more than change history. It was an event that affected all of Creation; that in fact made the entire human race new once again. It was an event that is so astonishing, so unexpected, that it shaped our entire understanding of God. It gave us Christ, the new Adam. It gave us the most Holy Theotokos, the new Eve, our Blesséd Lady.
The Annunciation is an event that draws us in, that raises questions of enormous significance. It is far more than a meeting of an Archangel and a young woman, even though that in itself is nothing to treat in an offhand way. Rather, it is a event with ramifications that extend through all time and through all the universe. It is a feast that offers us great depth and meaning; a seemingly simple conversation on which the salvation of the world turns, and a world is recreated in the light of God stepping into this world.
I want us to reflect on the story of the Annunciation, brought to us at each and every recitation of the Angelus as a story of self denial, of self emptying, of what the Scriptures identify as kenosis. It is, purely and simply, a story of love, a story we should never tire of hearing.
We know of kenosis of course from Christ’s passion, and the Apostle Paul’s quoting of the Kenotic Hymn in his letter the Philippians, Chapter 2:
(just to upset you and stir your sensibilities, I’m going to quote from The Message)
5-8Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honoured him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honour of God the Father.
“It was an incredibly humbling process” or in a more traditional form “he poured himself out for us …unto death, even death on a cross”
The link between Christ’s kenosis for us on the Cross and the kenosis of Our Blesséd Lady must be forged, for both are drawn out of faith, out of devotion and out of obedience: that in this test, both are shown in their own ways to have true virtue.
When the Archangel Gabriel visited her, the Virgin Mary was already full of virtue. Tradition and the especially the meditation of the Greek Fathers suggest that from her youngest days, she had been filled with the love of God, and sought Him in all ways, in all things and at all times.
St. Gregory Palamas tells us that she
“kept all the powers of her soul and her bodily senses far above any defilement. This she did authoritatively, steadfastly, decisively and altogether inviolably at all times, as a closed gate preserves the treasures within, and a sealed book keeps hidden from sight what is written inside.”
This might not have any Scriptural basis, but is borne out in her actions and most importantly, in her response to God.
How did she do this? Like her Son, the Mother of God is an example of kenosis, of emptying oneself. She had free will, she could have pursued her own desires, her own goals. But in all things she pursued her boundless love for God; she sublimated her own will to that of God.
Some of the Fathers tell us that when Gabriel sought out Mary, all of the righteous of the Old Testament, indeed, all of creation, waited breathlessly to hear her reply, fearful that they would hear her refuse God.
Others, like St. John of Damaskos, think differently. Pointing at the Virgin’s complete kenosis, they tell us that she could only have given the answer that she gave. She had, they tell us, perfect natural will, completely attuned to God, and allowing only one answer: yes.
In contrast to that, most of us have what is called “the will of choice”. It is that will, that frame of mind which allows more than one choice, that allows us to waver and to fret. We have that will when we are so burdened with our passions and desires that we do not recognize the will of God, or if we see it, we do not wish to assent to it. My will is the will of choice. It is the kind that virtually all of us have.
But not the Mother of God. Yet she did not achieve natural will by some magical means, or by divine grant. She achieved it by dedicating all of her young life, unceasingly, to the worship and contemplation of God.
So is it possible that the average person would have responded affirmatively to God as the Theotokos did? It is actually very unlikely. We might refuse from fear. We might refuse because our plans do not include that baby, divine or not. We think: how will this affect me? Is it good for me? The Virgin, however, has no such thoughts. God asks, she assents. As with Christ, in the Virgin we see the enormous rewards, the awe inspiring love that only the voluntary abandonment of self can bring.
And it is in that voluntary abandonment of self that we find our principal lesson for the Annunciation, because that abandonment is the key to salvation, the key to selfless love of God and our neighbour.
While you and I cannot physically bear the God-man, while we cannot be the Theotokos, we can participate in our own Annunciation. The word of God is the seed, and our nous, our hearts, are a spiritual womb.
By saying yes to God, by our faith, the word of God is sown in our hearts, and we are gifted with that awareness of God which is at the heart of true spiritual wisdom. It used to be ‘fear’ but that doesn’t quite capture the true sense of this cognizance of God.
In the fear of God – more accurately, in the fear of remaining far from God – we begin our struggles to purify our hearts and defeat our passions. What happened physically in the Annunciation can happen spiritually in us. Christ always wishes to live in our hearts, but He cannot unless we give him room, unless we move our stuff – our passions and pride – out, and give way to Him.
The Theotokos bore him who created the universe, contained Him who cannot be contained. Our goal, our destiny if we will but grasp it is to likewise hold within us the Divine fire, that we may, now and for eternity, burn with the love of God.
In this quiet time, I would ask you to ponder on the kenosis of the annunciation, and ask of you to bring to God what do you need to pour out to God this day of annunciation and this holy week, so that you may be filled with that divine fire.
acknowledgements to Deacon James at minorclergy.wordpress.com