The Annunciation

The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio (The Martorana), Palermo, Sicily, 12th century, mosaic

Today is a very special day! In the Great Lent’s desert of spiritual struggles, today’s feast emerges as an oasis of joy, of rejoicing; an oasis of the Annunciation, a word which comes from the Greek evanghelos and means “gospel,” “the good news.”

During today’s Divine Liturgy we read the very Gospel of the Annunciation, which tells about the moment when “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women” (Luke 1.26–28). We have kept this greeting of the Holy Archangel Gabriel, because it is the salutation most fitting for the Mother of God. Thus we have that beautiful prayer: “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” And we added: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls.” It is a short prayer, a small troparion, but extraordinarily useful. Very good and very helpful, including in our fight against passions. When they assail us, we sing the troparion. It is like lifting up our arms and beseeching her help: “Mother of God, take me in your arms because my enemies have attacked me again.”

We ought to know that the Mother of God, although young, was imbued with the scriptures of the Old Testament; she knew the prophecies because she was raised in the temple from the tender age of three. St. Gregory Palamas, a great saint with much reverence for her, said that the Mother of God, by reading and contemplating the prophecies of Messiah’s coming—and thus also Prophet Isaiah’s prophecy: “[…] they shall call his name Immanuel, which is translated ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1.23)—prayed to God: “God of my fathers, make me worthy to be the maidservant of the woman who will bring Immanuel into the world.” In the ardor of this lowly prayer, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her and said: “Not the maidservant, but the mother!”

So she knew the scriptures, because the angel’s greeting refers to Old Testament prophecies. When the angel said to her, “[…] and you shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1.31–33), he referred directly to a prophecy of St. Isaiah: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. His name will be called the Angel of Great Counsel, for I shall bring peace upon the rulers, peace and health by Him. Great shall be His government, and of His peace there is no end. His peace shall be upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order and establish it with righteousness and judgment, from that time forward and unto ages of ages. The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform this” (Isaiah 9.5–6). Therefore, this greeting shows us that the angel spoke to the Mother of God in a language she knew, the prophetic language, to give credibility to the message.

Then she asked, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1.34). And the angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1.35). And as a reference, he tells her that her relative, Elizabeth, the mother of St. John the Baptist, was five months pregnant, a fact unknown to anyone because St. Elizabeth had hidden it. Then the Mother of God gave that extraordinary answer, of great humility: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word!” This word shows that she completely bowed unto the will of the Lord. And so it was. It was not a mere word; she put it into practice! She obeyed fully, she surrendered to the will of God. We notice this in many aspects. For example, when she became pregnant, she could have been accused of adultery, Joseph did not know what to do with her, she could have been stoned to death. But she did not defend herself. For this reason, the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary. She did not defend herself in any way, she did not mention the appearance of the Holy Archangel Gabriel. She gave herself over to the will and order of God. She followed the words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!”

The Holy Fathers in our Orthodox tradition tell us to discern the spirits—that is, to look at everything with a critical eye, as we would say today; or as the Holy Apostle John tells us, “Test the spirits!” (1 John 4.1). We are not to receive everything as it comes, without discernment, and we see this in the Mother of God. “Now Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah” (Luke 1.39). The angel gave her the news, but she felt the need to test it. Although she believed, she allowed herself a testing loophole. She went to Elizabeth, but in a hurry, and this is a sign of the Annunciation. The Mother of God was very polite, pious, did not make inappropriate or hasty gestures, she was divine, say the Fathers. But this hurried gesture showed that she was full of a great joy that she needed to check. She went to Elizabeth, greeted her, and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, St. John the Baptist, leaped, as we well know. And Elizabeth spoke from the Holy Spirit and confirmed what had happened to her, through the words: “But why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1.43). She already called her “mother.” The incarnation of the Savior had already taken place in her womb. The Mother of God, without saying anything, received the confirmation she needed.

Then began her joy, which until then she had kept a bit hidden even from herself. The Holy Fathers say that this was a spontaneous gesture of the heart of the Mother of God who glorified God, saying: “My soul magnifies the Lord. And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for, behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is Mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His seed forever” (Luke 1.46–55). It is the Mother of God’s song of joy, following today’s Annunciation, after receiving the confirmation from Elizabeth, who was full of the Holy Spirit.

The gladness of today’s celebration, the great and unfathomable Glad Tidings, transpire from these words. For this reason Elizabeth said, “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” The Mother of God did not dither. But one needs a great deal of faith to receive such news and believe it without hesitation. This is the joy of the Mother of God.

May we preserve the joy of today’s feast throughout the entire Lent! Amen!

Protosyngellos Ieremia