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“Rejoice, O Theotokos, O deliverance of Adam from the curse! Rejoice, O chaste Theotokos! Rejoice, O living bush! Rejoice, O lamp! Rejoice, O throne! Rejoice, O ladder and door! Rejoice, O divine chariot! Rejoice, O bright cloud! Rejoice, O temple, O most-gilded jar! Rejoice, O mountain! Rejoice, O tabernacle and table! Rejoice, O deliverer of Eve!” – Orthros of the Feast, Tone 2“
On March 25, in both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, The Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, and of her assent to bear the Son of God is commemorated. This is exactly 9 months before the Nativity of Christ (Christmas). It is, on the Eastern calendar, the 7th Great Feast of the liturgical year. The primary Gospel account of this miraculous event is in the Gospel of Luke, but as with much else in the liturgical cycle, Church tradition, theology, and hymnody has so much more to say. In the centuries after the brief ministry of Jesus, succeeding generations of Christians had to come to terms with what, and moreover whom they had witnessed, and then work out and come to an understanding of the significance. Part of that reckoning was understanding who Mary was, and how profound her own role had been.
The liturgical year began with the Nativity Of the Theotokos, with which I also began this series, and it will end with her Dormition (still yet to come in August). Along the way we had the story of her presentation in the Temple, and while we also had the Nativity of Christ shortly thereafter, that is tied back to this point – her conception of Christ. In this way one can see that the liturgical year actually encompasses several arcs: that of Mary’s life, and that of Christ’s ministry on Earth, and each arc really stretches over more than just a single year. We may say that we are commemorating these events in the sense that we are remembering them, but we also understand that these are of eternal significance, eternally occurring, and we are eternally present in them, just as in the Eucharist we are eternally present at the Mystical Supper and the Crucifixion both (not repeatedly re-sacrificing Christ as some critics have misunderstood). The Lord of Hosts is outside of time itself, and so our connection to Him is likewise.
It should also be noted that, while not counted among the Great Feasts of the Church, the cycle of conception and nativity of John the Baptist, which are observed in late September and late June, parallel and prefigure those of Jesus. Each of these four commemorations occurs shortly after either an equinox or a solstice, which is itself significant. The Annunciation occurs just as (at least in the northern hemisphere), the days start to grow longer than the nights again, the Nativity of Christ occurs just as the days themselves begin to grow longer again.
Many Christians have pondered Mary and the Virgin Birth (including some excellent essays here on Rico that I’ll hopefully remember to link below). The author of the Protoevangelium of James tells the story that Mary was special from her birth and upbringing, being raised by her parents as a gift of God in their old age for years of faithfulness, and then presenting her at the Temple to be consecrated to the Lord. Though this is quite likely an embellishment (the Judeans did not present their daughters this way), for Mary to bear the Incarnation of the Lord is still a sign of a special favor. Moreover, Mary has to assent to it, knowing that bearing a child out of wedlock was a shameful act. This is what the Gospel of Luke says:
“In those days, Elizabeth the wife of Zacharias conceived and for five months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord had done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1, 24:38)
Mary’s assent is critical, for it is said in the hymnody that by her assent, by her choosing to obey, she is undoing the disobedience of Eve, and carrying in her the new Adam. The Kontakion of the morning Orthros reads:
Hail, thou, through whom joy shall shine forth; Hail, thou through whom the curse shall be destroyed.
Hail, thou restoration of the fallen Adam; Hail, thou redemption of the tears of Eve.
Hail, thou height untrod by human minds; Hail, thou depth hard to scan, even for angels’ eyes.
Hail, thou that art a kingly throne; Hail, thou that holdest the Upholder of all.
Hail, thou star that showed the Sun; Hail, Womb of the divine incarnation.
Hail, thou through whom Creation is renewed; Hail, thou through whom the Creator becomes a babe.
Hail, O Bride without bridegroom!
For this assent, and for her bearing of Jesus, Mary is called The Theotokos – the birth giver of God, and is honored above all other saints of the Church. For this, she is given pride of place on the iconostasis (a screen separating the nave of the church from the altar area), always at the right hand of Jesus, and iconography of The Annunciation is very often featured on the Royal Doors (the central doors of the iconostasis, which are only opened from within by priests, or without by bishops). Christmas may receive most of the world’s attention in modern times, but the Annunciation is the glorious prelude, and the key moment at which the world begins to change.
The icons of The Annunciation are nearly all of the same pattern. On one hand we see the Archangel Gabriel before Mary, while Mary is usually seated under or in front of a canopy or shelter, holding a thread while making a cloth. A glory (or nimbus) from above shines a ray down towards Mary, showing the descent of the Holy Spirit upon her (sometimes in the form of a dove). Gabriel, Mary, and the Holy Spirit all fit with the account in Luke, but what of the other details? We once again turn to the Protoevengelium of James. In this account it is said that the Temple was in need of a new veil for the Holy of Holies, and Mary was among the virgins chosen to weave it. In this account, Mary was at work weaving when Gabriel visited her, and thus it is often depicted in the iconography.