Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the commemoration of the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to a young Jewish girl in Palestine some two thousand years ago. This feast has been celebrated since the fifth century, and it is one of the few feasts which are important enough that the fast of Lent is actually suspended for the day. Some see this feast as Mariological, that is, that it has to do primarily with the Blessed Virgin, but I see it as Christological, I believe that it has more to do with the Christ, the Incarnation.
The reading we heard this morning from the Hebrew scriptures is a very interesting reading, as it can be understood on two levels, and both have to do with prophecy. We can read the meaning of this text in its original historical situation which is described in the second Book of Kings. The nation of Syria had entered into an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel against the southern kingdom of Judah, of which Ahaz was king. Both Syria and Israel had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah offered Ahaz a sign that everything would eventually work out and be successful, but Ahaz refused the sign, probably because he didn't want Isaiah's advice. Isaiah was a prophet who always spoke the word given to him by God' he didn't care whether Ahaz wanted to hear it or not. The sign Isaiah gave Ahaz was: A young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. In this context, it is probable that the young woman was the wife of Ahaz, and the son to be born is Hezekiah, the future king of Judah. The sign, then, concerned the continuation of the dynasty of David, a sign that God was still with God's people.
The second meaning is that of Matthew and is the meaning which we, as Christians, recognize. We read this as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, and we see the young woman as Mary, and the son as Jesus. When the author of Matthew's gospel quoted Isaiah's prophecy, he was not using the actual Hebrew text but using a translation we call the Septuagint which is a translation from the original Hebrew into Greek, which is the language of the Christian scriptures or New Testament. In the Septuagint the word for young woman was translated as παρθενους, which means "virgin." Now, it's quite probable that Isaiah was only thinking of the immediate future when he made his prediction to Ahaz, but since he as a prophet, and the Spirit of God was upon him, the Holy Spirit was speaking through him and this prophecy did have to do with the birth of Hezekiah but also had to do with the birth of the Incarnation. The genealogies of both Matthew and Luke serve to tell us that the birth of Jesus was also a continuation of the Davidic dynasty, and Jesus truly was Emmanuel, "God with us." The Holy Spirit, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, was giving hope to Ahaz and hope to the entire world.
The reading from the Gospel of Luke is the story of the Annunciation, and it is a story that we usually only hear during Advent, and people outside of the Liturgical tradition only think of this story during Christmas. The Bible contains several annunciation stories: there are annunciation stories about the birth of Isaac, about the birth of Samson, the birth of Samuel, and, of course, the birth of John the Baptizer. The purpose of an annunciation story is to acquaint the reader or those listening to the story with the role that the person about to be born will play in salvation history. The purpose is to give us a foreshadowing, in a way, of what will happen, of how important this person's life will be; it is not to serve as an accurate historical narrative. In the other annunciation stories I mentioned, the situation was that a child was to be born to a couple who were either barren and unable to have children, or, in the case of Abram and Sara, a couple who were well past child-bearing age, so the angel was announcing a miraculous birth. But the situation in today's story is quite different: this annunciation is to a young woman of child-bearing age, but she is a woman without a husband, which, as we all know, does not prevent one from having a child. The emphasis in this story is not on a miraculous birth, but on the creative act of the Holy Spirit in bringing about the conception in the womb of this young girl so that the Incarnation, God in Flesh, could come and live among us, so that Emmanuel, God-with-us, could be born in a simple stable with beasts of burden. The Archangel Gabriel came to this young, frightened girl, and informed her that she had been chosen above all others to be the Θεοτοκυς, the God-bearer. Gabriel told her that she would become pregnant, that she would have a son, that his name would be Jesus, and that he would be called Holy and the Son of God. When Mary asked how this could be since she did not have a husband, Gabriel explained the process to her, and also told her that although this may sound strange, her cousin Elizabeth was with child because with God nothing is impossible. And Mary, the one we call Blessed above all women, said, "You see before you the Lord's servant; let it happen to me as you have said." And with her agreement, and with her obedience to God's will, the salvation of the world was able to take place. It is said that "God made us without us, God redeemed us without us, but God cannot save us without us." Mary represented all of humanity when she said "yes" to God's plan, and we have been saved because a human being allowed God to dwell in her womb for nine months.
Mary answered "yes" to God's call, just as Abraham had answered "yes" to God's call. When Abraham answered God's call, he became the father of a mighty nation, the nation of Israel. When Mary answered God's call, she became the mother of the faithful, of God's people, the Λαος, the People of God' she became the mother of the New Israel. Her response to Gabriel, "You see before you the Lord's servant; let it happen to me as you have said," expresses the same faith as that expressed in the prayer her son, Jesus, taught us to say: Your will be done on earth as in heaven. The Annunciation is an event outside of history, because it is the direct intervention of God in human affairs, it is the actual insertion of God into human affairs, because God took on a human body and lived and laughed and ate and drank and slept and woke and experienced all the joys and trials which make up this life, this human existence.
The Feast of the Annunciation takes place on March 25th because it is supposed to be exactly nine months before the birth of Jesus. You mothers know that it is actually quite rare that someone is born exactly nine months after conception; some babies are early and some are late, and it is quite probable that Jesus was not born on December 25. St. Clement of Alexandria was sure that Jesus was born on May 20. But I think that it is appropriate that the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated during Lent, because the Lenten season points towards the purpose of the Incarnation: to live as one of us, to be arrested and executed, to be buried and then on the third day be resurrected so that death would be conquered, that humanity would be redeemed and given the gift of eternal life. Lent points us towards the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the Annunciation points us towards the birth by which the Incarnation came to live among us.
Today we celebrate the Archangel's message to a young girl. Today we celebrate the young girl's obedience to God's will. Today we celebrate the life which told us of the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of God's Reign.
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.