07 April 2010

'I Am a Writer's Tablet'—The Feast of the Annunciation

Today, 25 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos has called it ‘the beginning of all the feasts of the Lord’. [1] Concerning this day, St Nicholas (Cabasilas) has written:

If there is ever a time when a man should rejoice, exult, and cry out with gladness, when he should go off and search for what great and brilliant statements he might utter, when he should wish to be vouchsafed sublimity of ideas, beauty of diction, and powerful oratory, I see no other occasion than this day, on which an Angel came to earth from Heaven bearing every good tiding. [2]

I posted a couple of links and comments here last year, as well as John Donne’s beautiful sonnet, ‘Annunciation’. Today, I will post a couple of passages from patristic homilies, part of a poem by an Orthodox writer, and a brief hymn from the Matins of the Feast. First, here is the account of this miraculous event from the Prologue:

When the most holy Virgin had lived and served in the Temple at Jerusalem for eleven years, and was by then fourteen years old—when, that is, she was entering on her fifteenth year—the priests informed her that, according to the Law, she could no longer remain in the Temple but must be betrothed and marry. But, to the great surprise of all the priests, the most holy Virgin replied that she had dedicated herself to God and wished to a maiden remain till death and enter into wedlock with no-one. Then, by God's providence and under His inspiration, Zacharias, the high priest and father of the Forerunner, in consultation with the other priests, chose twelve unmarried men from the tribe of David so that they might entrust the Virgin Mary to one of them to preserve her virginity and care for her. She was thus entrusted to Joseph, an old man from Nazareth and a kinsman of hers. In his house, the most holy Virgin continued to live in the same manner as in the Temple of Solomon, passing her time in the reading of the sacred Scriptures, in prayer, in pondering on the works of God, in fasting and in handwork. She scarcely ever left the house, nor took an interest in worldly matters or events. She generally conversed very little with anyone, and never without a particular need. She was intimate only with the two daughters of Joseph. But when the time prophesied by the Prophet Daniel had come and when God was pleased to fulfil the promise made to Adam when He drove him out of Paradise, and to the prophets, the mighty Archangel Gabriel appeared in the chamber of the most holy Virgin, at the precise moment (as some priestly writers have related) that she was holding open on her lap the book of the Prophet Isaiah and pondering on his great prophecy: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’. Gabriel appeared to her in angelic light and said to her: ‘Rejoice, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee!’, and so forth, just as is related in the Gospel of the divine Luke. With this angelic greeting and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the salvation of mankind and the renewal of creation were set in motion. The Archangel turned the first page of the story of the New Testament with the word ‘Rejoice!’, to show by this the joy that the New Testament signifies for mankind and for all things created. And therefore the Annunciation is looked upon as a joyous, as well as a great, feast. [3]

I for one have always been moved by the simplicity of the Panagia’s final response—‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’ (Lk 1:38), which Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid has paraphrased as, ‘I am a writer’s tablet; let the Writer write upon it whatever He wishes. Let the Lord do as He wills.’ [4] It is this that I’d like to focus on in my choices of material here. First, from the homily on today’s Feast by St Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki:

How did the highly favoured Virgin, with her unrivalled and holy understanding, respond to these words? She ran to God and reached out to Him in prayer, saying to the Archangel, ‘If, as you tell me, the Holy Spirit shall come upon me, purifying my nature still further and strengthening me to receive the unborn Saviour; if the power of the Highest shall overshadow me, forming Him Who is in the form of God as man within me and bringing about a Birth without seed; if the holy Child which shall be born is to be the Son of God and God and the everlasting King, since with God nothing is impossible’, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38). And the angel departed from her, leaving the Maker of all united with a bodywithin her womb. By means of this union, which was the object of his ministry, he had procured salvation for the world. Isaiah clearly revealed all this beforehand by what he was so blessed as to be counted worthy to experience. He did not see the Seraphim take the live coal directly off the heavenly, spiritual altar. The Seraphim took it with tongs, and it was by means of these that he touched the Prophet’s lips to purify him (Isa. 6:5-7). The tongs were the same as the burning bush which was not consumed by the fire, in that great vision seen by Moses (Exod.3:2-6).

Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs. She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an Archangel ministered at the conception, and through her the Bearer of the sins of the wold was united with the human race, purifying us thoroughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him Who cannot be contained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after, and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the Apostles, the support of the martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole Creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope stored up for us in heaven. [5]

Next, another hesychast Father of 14th-c. Thessaloniki, St Nicholas (Cabasilas), has written very movingly indeed on the Panagia’s momentous fiat:

5. Having in this way taught and persuaded her, God made her His Mother and borrowed flesh from her with her knowledge and consent, in order that, just as He was conceived voluntarily, it might equally come about for His Mother that she should conceive voluntarily and become His Mother willingly and by her own free decision; and so that, even more importantly, she might not simply contribute to the Oeconomy of the Incarnation as one who had been conscripted like some puppet, but might herself offer her own self and become a fellow-worker with God in His Providence for the human race and, thereby, be made a partaker and sharer with Him of the glory deriving therefrom; and so that, furthermore, just a s the Savior Himself became man and the Son of man not only for the sake of the flesh, but also had a soul, a mind, and a will, and everything else that is human, He might in the same way obtain a perfect Mother who would minister to His Nativity not only through the nature of her body, but also through her mind, her will, and all that she possessed, and that the Virgin might thus be His Mother in both flesh and soul and might endow the ineffable birthgiving with human nature in its totality.

. . .

9. . . . And so it was that with a blessed tongue, an unperturbed soul, and thoughts full of tranquility she said: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’ (Lk 1:38).

10. These were the words that she said, and they were fulfilled at once: ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14); and, after giving her reply to God, she received the Spirit that created from her that flesh which was one with God. . . . O sacred voice! O words of great power! O blessed tongue, which restored the entire inhabited earth in one fell swoop! O treasury of a heart which, by a few words, poured out upon us an abundance of good things! These w ords made the earth Heaven, emptied Hades of its prisoners, caused Heaven to be inhabited by men, joined Angles with men, and formed the Heavenly and earthly races into a single chorus around Him who is both, being God but becoming man.

What gratitude could we express to you for these words? What should we call you, of whom nothing human is worthy? Our words derive from existing things, whereas you surpass the whole world beyond every sublimity. If words are to be offered to you, this, I ween, is a task for Angels, for a Cherubic mind, for a fiery tongue. Hence, having mentioned, as far as we are able, those things which redound to your praise, and having chanted hymns to you, our salvation, to the best of our ability, we ask next for an Angelic voice. We will conclude with the salutation of Gabriel, adorning the sum of our oration with this additament: ‘Rejoice, thou who art full of Grace, the Lord is with thee’ (Luke 1:28). May you prepare us to make a habitation for Him within ourselves, for this is conducive to His glory and to the laudation of you who gave birth to Him, when we not only talk about it, but also put it into practice, for unto Him belongs glory unto the ages. Amen. [6]

And now for a telling in verse of this very event. Whatever one may think of the presentation of the teaching of Lao Tzu in Hieromonk Damascene’s Christ the Eternal Tao [7], I for one found the poem which forms the centrepiece of the book quite lovely in places. I have long been particularly struck by a passage dealing with the subject of today’s Feast, hearing a reading of which lodged it into my brain and rather guided this post all along (Second Ennead, Chapter 15, ll. 7-30):

The Mind spoke, and through His Word
Answered the earth’s elemental moan.
Above that roaring cry
He answered with a still, small voice:
I will come. Will you receive me, then?
But no man heard that voice.
Only a small, young woman,
Who had lived, unknown, in silence and purity in the Great Temple
Was given to hear it.
And in a still, small voice She gave voice to the whole earth.
She answered for all those beings and created forms who could not speak;
She answered for all the people who could not hear.
And to the question of the Uncreated Mind,
She answered: Yes,
I will receive You.
Be it unto me according to Your Word.

In Her the Way had found the lowest place in the entire earth—
The nadir of the Valley,
The supreme humility, lowliness—
And there He came and made His abode.
He took flesh of Her whom He loved above all others who dwelled on the earth,
Who was meek and humble like Himself.
And lowering Himself, emptying Himself, in His love, to the lowest place,
He became a tiny child within Her, the Mystic Mother. [8]

Finally, while most of the hymns for the Feast focus on words of the Archangel Gabriel, at last, in the final Theotokion of the eighth ode of the Canon of the Feast, we read:

‘Thou dost appear to me to speak the truth’, answered the Virgin. ‘For thou hast come as an angel messenger, bringing joy to all. Since, then, I am purified in soul and body by the Spirit, be it unto me according to thy word: may God dwell in me. Unto Him I cry aloud with thee: O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.’ [9]

One last bit of ‘good news’ on this Feast of the Ευαγγελισμός: Felix Culpa of the original ‘flagship Orthodox blog’ has returned. See his bevy of posts today, and offer a prayer of thanks to God for his health.

[1] Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the Twelve Feasts & Orthodox Christology, tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2003), p. 24.

[2] St Nicholas (Cabasilas), ‘Homily on the Annunciation’, Orthodox Tradition XXII.2, 2005, p. 3.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), pp. 326-7.

[4] Bl Theophylact of Ochrid, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 18.

[5] St Gregory Palamas, Mary the Mother of God: Sermons by St Gregory Palamas, ed. Christopher Veniamin (South Canaan, PA: Mt Thabor, 2005), pp. 58-9.

[6] St Nicholas (Cabasilas), pp. 6, 11-2.

[7] There is a critical response, for instance, by Dr Jeremias Norman, Professor Emeritus, Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, Seattle—‘The Daode Jing from an Orthodox Perspective’, Orthodox Tradition XXII.1, 2005, pp. 17-23.

[8] Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen), Christ the Eternal Tao, illust. Lou Shibai & You Shan Tang (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1999), pp. 84-5.

[9] The Festal Menaion, tr. Mother Mary & Archim. Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998), p. 457.


johnr said...

Christ is risen. Well said Aaron, well written! Very nice. It gives hope to us all. The Lord has blessed you with golden talent!

aaronandbrighid said...

Truly He is risen! You're much too kind, Father (I assume that's you!). People will start to think I'm paying commentors to praise my blog extravagantly!