I want to begin by wishing you all a blessed feast of the Annunciation of the Good News by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary! All around the world, Christians are celebrating this great event, recounted in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
This “annunciation” – an older way of saying “announcement” – comes in the form of a twofold message from the archangel. First, Gabriel hails Mary with an imperative: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
Mary thus learns of her status as one chosen by God for a special purpose. Understandably, she is a bit unsettled by this news: “she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was.”
Note, interestingly, that unlike in other angelic visitations, such as the one in Luke 2 to the shepherds, the archangel does not begin his greeting with “Do not be afraid!” Perhaps this is because, as the Protoevangelium of James describes, Mary already has an established familiarity with the angels (Proto Evang. 8), from whose hands she received food during the years before her betrothal, in the Temple.
Her life had been entirely devoted to serving God. At a young age, she was dedicated by her parents to service in the Temple, and continued there until her betrothal to Joseph. The angel’s message to her comes as less of a surprise – at least to us – for in a certain sense she had been chosen long ago. The entire history of Israel as the people of God, in fact, leads up to Christ through Mary, the holy and living vessel who was prepared and selected to bear the incarnate God in her womb:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. 32 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. 33 And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.
Note that the archangel’s admonition not to be afraid comes in response not to the awesome presence of the angel himself, but rather to the all-the-more awesome content of the news that he reports to her: that she will give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God.
After describing the miraculous way in which this will occur in response to her further questions – Mary is clearly a free agent in this conversation – the angel concludes his explanation with the following words: “For with God nothing will be impossible.”
Then a crucial moment occurs, and it’s as if all heaven and earth is holding its breath, waiting for her reply: “Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.’ With this free expression of Mary’s consent, only then “the angel departed from her.”
The vital fact here is that Mary’s consent is required in order for the Incarnation to occur. God does not force salvation upon us; He invites us – preparing and guiding us, of course – to participate in the plan He has established, which is always unfolding in our midst.
That plan will involve difficulty and struggle, which purifies us, cultivating “perseverance…character …hope…[and] love” (Romans 5:3-5). We have the choice to embrace the invitation, which is also a challenge. We have the freedom to accept or reject what God is preparing us for – and what God is preparing for us.
As we’ve quoted from St Paisios before:“Desire and effort must come from you; God will provide the power and the result.” We see here that, while she was initially hesitant and uncertain, Mary ultimately opts to place her trust in God, uttering the crucial words: “Let it be to me according to your word.”
In this way, Mary expresses her desire and willingness to play her part in the mystery of God’s love for mankind. The remainder of her days will be spent in the effort of bearing, raising, following, grieving for, and – on Pascha/Easter – rejoicing in her Son. Ultimately, she will be raised to life by Him several years after His own glorious resurrection. And as we know, the archangel’s words have proved true across twenty centuries: “blessed art thou among women.”
In these challenging times, we are receiving on a daily and even hourly basis, all sorts of disconcerting announcements. These are “annunciations” of a different sort. Yet even in receiving news that reminds us of the perilous nature of earthly existence, let us remember Mary’s own response to the annunciation of God’s plan for becoming incarnate: her faithfulness, her acceptance of uncertainty and difficulty, her hope.
On the Cross and in His rising from the Tomb, Christ has won the final victory for us. The full repercussions of that victory are all too easy to forget in times when suffering and death are all around us. But it is precisely at such times that remembering not just Mary and humankind’s participation in God’s plan, but God’s own participation in and entrance into this world, His assumption of human nature, should be at the forefront of our minds and hearts.
Through his voluntary acceptance of death, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), Jesus Christ has transformed both suffering and death into pathways to Life; they can be used against their own apparent significance as causes of hopelessness instead as vehicles for our purification and entrance into abundant Life. Our suffering can participate in His suffering.
To sum up; in considering the angel’s “strange manner of greeting,” Mary dwelt in a place of unknowing and uncertainty. But she had a deeply rooted faith in the love and power of God to transform all things into blessings. She knew the profound grief of mourning; for her Son was betrayed, mocked, and killed in a public, shameful way. Yet she remained at the foot of the Cross, and did not abandon hope. She was committed at both ends of her life to the born, and to the dying.
Her hope is the same as ours: and that hope has been fulfilled. Her Son has opened up for us the doors to Life. Let us therefore follow the first command of the archangel to Mary on this feast of the Annunciation: Rejoice!