Saturday, June 23, 2018

Homily for the Feast of the Annunciation - March 25, 2018

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Exactly nine months to the day before the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the Annunciation that the Archangel Gabriel makes to Mary. There is mystical significance for this date for pious tradition tells us that Adam, the first man, fell into sin by disobedience to God and was cast out of Paradise by the Divine Majesty.

Pious tradition also tells us that on this same day in the month of March, Cain murdered his brother Abel; Melchisedech made an offering to God of bread and wine in the presence of Abraham, and Abraham put forward his son Isaac as a sacrifice unto God. Tradition also tells us that March 25th is the same day that St. John the Baptist was beheaded, that St. Peter was delivered out of prison, and that it was the day upon which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified.

While it is highly unlikely that these events all occurred on the same day, our Christian forefathers and foremothers wanted to emphasize the deep spiritual connection between them all. This is probably best summarized by St. Irenaeus of Lyons when he wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith” (Against Heresies III, XXII, 4.).

It clearly shows how Jesus came to bring about a new creation and to undo the disobedience of Adam and Eve with total and unwavering obedience. The alignment of events reminds us that Jesus came to defeat sin and death, and open up the gates of heaven to a new Promised Land. On this day Jesus became the true Lamb of God, who willingly sacrificed Himself on the wood of the Cross. It was the day that Jesus came into the world in the womb of Mary and the day when Jesus left this world to the womb of the tomb.

The spiritual symbolism of this day connects everything in salvation history, showing the wondrous providence of God. March 25th may not have been the historical day of the Crucifixion or of any of these other events, but the connections among them all is real and profound to contemplate.

This morning’s Gospel reading is very beautiful and very significant: “And in the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

And the angel, having entered into the house, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” Hearing him speak, Mary was troubled at his words and thought to herself what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said to her: “Fear not, Mary, for you have found grace with God. Behold you shall conceive in your womb and shall bring forth a son: and you shall call His name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and He shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. And of his kingdom, there shall be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel: “How shall this be done since I have not known man? And the angel answering said to her: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. And, therefore, also the Holy One which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God. And behold, your cousin Elizabeth, she also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren. Because with God, nothing is impossible.” And Mary said: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word. And the angel departed from her.”

Our Lady uttered her fiat -- her words "Let it be done to me according to your word" -- and the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity condescended to take on a human nature and become a man. God became a man! 

At the moment that Gabriel spoke his words, the Word of God is forever united to humanity; At that moment, God begins to have an adorer who is His creature, and the world a mediator who is omnipotent; and, to the working of this great Mystery, Mary alone is chosen to cooperate by her free assent.

Through the holy encounter of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, the entire earth is changed as is the whole of humanity forever. The earth cowers at the very countenance of the God who created it and deigns to come to dwell upon it. All of creation rejoices at the coming of the Lord and a simple ordinary Virgin agrees to become the tabernacle of the Light that never sets, of the Eternal Fire that is pure Love.

Yes, the whole heavens were moved by this indescribable act of immense love, and we Orthodox Catholics are moved yet, honoring Christ's Incarnation at each and every Divine Liturgy when we bow profoundly in gratitude during the Creed, at the words "…and became man.” 

We are reminded every morning at Matins of the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement, Mary's fiat, and the Creator of the Sun and Moon and Stars deigning to take on a human nature, all according to prophecy:

“...Hear ye, therefore, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? Therefore, the Lord Himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel. He shall eat butter and honey, that He may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good” (Isaiah 7:13-15). And, “There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse [David's father], and a flower shall rise up out of his root” (Isaiah 11:1).

It is through Our Lady that the Ancient of Days sprang from the root of Jesse according to the flesh, thereby restoring the Davidic Kingdom and coming to reign as King of Kings from the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Tertullian (b. c. 160) writes of the significance of Mary's heritage when arguing against those who denied Christ's human nature: “Now, since He is the blossom of the stem which sprouts from the root of Jesse; since, moreover, the root of Jesse is the family of David, and the stem of the root is Mary descended from David, and the blossom of the stem is Mary's son, who is called Jesus Christ, will not He also be the fruit? For the blossom is the fruit, because through the blossom and from the blossom every product advances from its rudimental condition to perfect fruit. What then? They deny to the fruit its blossom, and to the blossom its stem, and to the stem its root; so that the root fails to secure for itself, by means of the stem, that special product which comes from the stem, even the blossom, and the fruit; for every step indeed in a genealogy is traced from the latest up to the first, so that it is now a well-known fact that the flesh of Christ is inseparable, not merely from Mary, but also from David through Mary, and from Jesse through David.”

The Feast of the Annunciation also explains what Our Lord’s being born of a woman teaches about the dignity of women. Would Christ have been any less a man had He not been born of the Virgin Mary? Being God Himself, Jesus could have come into this world by any others means. He did not have to be born of a human woman. Many people throughout the centuries have questioned why God would choose to be born of a woman. Why should He not choose to be born of a woman? Why would He avoid it?” Certainly, the Eternal Word did not believe that He would in some way be defiled by a woman’s womb! 

Truly, it must be acknowledged that if the Lord had willed to become man without being born of a woman, it would not be difficult or impossible for His Sovereign Majesty. For as He could be born of a woman without a man, so could He also have been born without the woman. But by being born of a woman, the Lord God purposed to show to us some high mystery. By being born of a woman, He showed us that mankind of neither sex should despair of its salvation, for the human sexes are male and female. If, therefore, being a man, which it pleased Him assuredly to be, He had not been born of a woman, women might have then despaired of themselves, calling to remembrance the sin of disobedience of our first parents, which separated them from God. Women would have then thought that they had no hope at all for redemption and that they were cursed forever had Christ chosen a way of coming into the world other than being born of a woman,  which is the way God had intended from the beginning of time for the human race to procreate.

God designed to come among us as a man to join Himself to us and us to Him and to restore what was lost by our first parents. By His coming into the world as a man and being born of a woman, God has restored the beauty, importance, and uniqueness of both the male and female sexes.

God willed to be born of a woman to honor and extol women for all time, giving them in the person of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, the most perfect example of goodness, holiness, purity, and faith. In the Mother of God, we see the first Eve as she was before the Fall. Thus, the Theotokos has become a source of hope for all people everywhere because her life is what the lives of all men and women should be.

By becoming a man and being born of a woman, it is as if God has said, “That all may know that no creature of God is bad, but that unregulated pleasure perverts it, I choose to be born a man and be born of a woman because in the beginning I made them male and female and commanded that they be fruitful and multiply. I do not condemn the creature which I made, but their sins which I did not make or cause to be.”

By becoming a man and being born of a woman, God has exulted both the male and female species. By being born of a woman, God has blessed and made holy a woman’s womb, for He Himself deigned to dwell within it for nine months. Thus, childbearing and childbirth take on a sacramental nature for by Mary carrying Christ in Her womb and by giving birth to Him, two natural human experiences are intimately united and associated with the divine.

God has truly honored womankind. Women were the first to announce to the Apostles the Resurrection of Christ. The woman in Paradise announced death to her husband but the women in the Church announced salvation to the men. The Apostles were to announce the Resurrection of Christ to the nations, but the woman announced it first to the Apostles. It was the women who followed Christ to Calvary and stood at the foot of the Cross as He died and agonizing death, but it was the Apostles who abandoned Him and fled in fear when He was arrested.

Let no one then question why Christ would be born of a woman; for God chose to honor all women by being born of one of their kind. Such, therefore, is the honor and dignity of childbearing and giving birth for they are not merely natural human processes, but human processes sanctified and made holy by the very birth in human flesh of the Creator of all, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

The parallel between Eve and the Blessed Virgin Mary is why Our Lady is referred to as “the New Eve,” as Christ is referred to as “the New Adam.” St. Irenaeus wrote in his Apology, Book II, Chapter XII: “Those, therefore, who allege that Christ took nothing from the Virgin do greatly err, since, in order that they may cast away the inheritance of the flesh, they also reject the analogy between Him and Adam. St. Luke, in telling the genealogy of the Lord Christ, carried it back to Adam, the first man, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of Life, and not the other way around. And so, it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith.”

There is something I want you to keep in mind: note that St. Luke said that the Virgin Mary was “espoused” to St. Joseph. During the time in which Mary and Joseph lived, marriage customs were much different than they are today, especially here in America. Holy Scripture uses the terms “espoused” and “betrothed” to describe the relationship between Mary and Joseph.

Betrothal in the time of Mary and Joseph was a covenant pledge, a legal and binding agreement where a man and woman are pledged to each other, sometimes in an agreement arranged by the parents without the children’s knowledge. A betrothal, however, is not the same as an engagement, especially as we understand the meaning of that word today. On the contrary, betrothal meant the ratification or sealing of a marriage agreement but not the consummation of the marriage.

The consummation of a marriage (sexual union of the couple) would normally not take place until well after the betrothal, sometimes even a year later. The period between betrothal and consummation of a marriage was a period in which the fidelity of each of the parties to the agreement is tried and tested. During this time, the couple is considered to be “espoused” or wedded to one another, but the marriage is not consummated.

In the betrothal or “Kiddushin” as it is called in Hebrew, there is a pledge given and a covenant entered into. After the Kiddushin, the couple were taxed together, referred to as man and wife, considered married by law in terms of inheritance, etc., and they could only separate through divorce, and then only if the marriage had not been consummated. But the couple did not live together until months or even a year later when they would have a celebration of their marriage vows, at which point the groom would take his wife to their new home (called "home-taking" or nisuin). 

Many of you may find this ancient custom familiar, and it is. It is the same custom and tradition we have in the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church. It has been a long-standing custom in our Church and reflects not only our religious practice but the cultural heritage of the Sicilian people. Marriage and family have always held an important place and played an important role in the life of the Sicilian and Italian people.

I tell you of this custom because there are many people today who propose the idea that the Theotokos was “an unwed mother.” The push to prove that the Virgin Mary was an unwed mother is an attempt to normalize unwed motherhood, or to take the shame out of it (“the Virgin Mary was an unwed mother, so big deal!”). While there are certainly valid and acceptable reasons for a woman to be an unwed mother (for example, in the case of rape), having a child outside of wedlock should not be considered the norm.

To bring a new life into the world is one of the most wondrous powers God has given to both women and men. For a man and woman to come together in marriage as one body and give themselves to each other in the conjugal act is to be active participants, co-workers, if you will, with God in His continuing act of creation. This honor and dignity are never to be taken for granted. It is a grave and awesome responsibility which should not be entered into lightly.

The Feast of the Annunciation is the Feast of Life and Love. To truly understand its real meaning, we must immerse ourselves deeply into the exploration and contemplation of God’s divine plan for man. However, this is an endeavor we cannot undertake by ourselves; we must look to Holy Mother Church to guide us and accompany us in our quest to find the Truth and understand it. Then, and only then, shall we be able to see things as they truly are. Then and only then will each one of us be able to give our own “Fiat”, our “Yes” to God without fear, hesitation, or doubt. Then shall we be able to say like the Virgin Mary, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to Your will.”


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