We gather today to share one of the most important events in human history—the Annunciation to Holy Mary, the announcement when the angel Gabriel told her that she was to become the Theotokos, the Mother of Christ. Some two thousand years later it is right for us to acknowledge with awe that this event—this blessing of Holy Mary and the subsequent birth of Christ—was the crowning event of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity on earth. When Gabriel greeted Mary as recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of St Luke and told her, “The Lord is with you” Gabriel was speaking not only to Holy Mary, but to each of us. Gabriel was telling Holy Mary and us that we should “not be afraid” because we “have found favour with God.” Together, we and Holy Mary are being offered the opportunity to participate in the life of Christ.
Of course, she is the person on earth who has given birth to Christ, but we are the people who now share with Holy Mary what Holy Mary’s cousin Elizabeth called “the fulfilment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” We are the people who share her hymn of exaltation, known as “The Magnificat” because that hymn begins with the Latin word Magnificat which means “exalts.” How can we reach this level of exaltation, of praise of God? None of us are as holy as Holy Mary. Yet, yet she shows us how to respond to God’s love. Her response to the angel Gabriel can become our response to God: “May it be done to me according to your word.” It is her experience of joy that we share when she proclaimed “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour,” because her Son, Christ, is also our Saviour. And that act of salvation in which Holy Mary participated with much surprise, but also with much acceptance, continues precisely as she prophesised “from generation after generation toward those who fear Him.”
We share with Holy Mary not only her praise and exaltation of God, but also her fear of God. As is written in Psalm 110, Verse 10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Two sixth century Orthodox Christian saints who shared that fear of the Lord with the Theotokos were St Benedict and St Columba. Each evening at the conclusion of the Choral Services at Westminster Abbey, those who are present are reminded of the words of St Benedict: “O gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive Thee, diligence to seek Thee, patience to wait for Thee, eyes to behold Thee, a heart to meditate on Thee, and a life to proclaim Thee; through the power of . . . Jesus Christ our Lord.” The attributes for which St Benedict is praying are the traits of The Theotokos—diligence to seek God, patience to wait for Him, eyes to behold Him, a heart to meditate on Him and the living of a life to proclaim Him.
The living of that life for The Theotokos, for St Benedict, for St Columba and for us is often not easy. St Columba became involved in a controversy about ownership of the manuscript of a psalter; and he was sent into exile from Scotland to Ireland. Last month, a Christian writer from Scotland, Brian Morton, compared St Columba to a heron because both St Columba and the heron were “tall and deceivingly strong,” especially when they were still “at the water’s edge.” Morton suggests that when Columba and his twelve companions reached the island of Iona, the future saint “went ashore with his staff and stood in the shallows for a long time praying, with his back turned to home.” Thus Columba became a pilgrim on a journey of participating in the life of Christ. Morton concludes his reflection on the life of St Columba with the words: “The pilgrim is a solitary bird who yet needs other birds around him, when he makes his crossings. The essence of pilgrimage is, as [St Columba] taught us, the turned back [on the past] and not the arrival. We cannot be pilgrims if we cling too hard to familiar things. We become true pilgrims,” suggests Brian Morton, “the moment home falls out of sight and we put aside for the moment any thoughts of return. The pilgrim is a grey bird standing hunched at the water’s edge looking down through the waters and into the self.”
I think that perspective on the life of St Columba is honest and fair. Columba’s life in Scotland was in a mess. He had caused a war and had many enemies. However, we can also become pilgrims while staying at home and turning our back on our past sins and past failings. We can still participate fully in the life of Christ by looking at ourselves at home and how we can live better, how we can live a life that participates further in the life of Christ;.
That is precisely what Holy Mary did. She stayed at home, but turned her back on the past and embraced her life as the Theotokos. St Columba turned his back on Scotland and began to draw the people of a very pagan Ireland to Christ. That turning away from the confusions of contemporary Roman society is also what St Benedict did when he moved to a cave in Subiaco, 40 miles east of Rome; and then during the next fifty years, from roughly 500 to 550, St Benedict founded 13 separate monasteries nearby, two of which still exist today. Whether we stay at home, as did the Theotokos, or leave home as did St Columba and St Benedict, we can turn away from our past lives in repentance, in confession to God, often with our confessor as witness.
Now, we have already received Christ from The Theotokos. We are not being asked to turn a whole country from paganism to Christ, as did St Columba, nor are we being asked to found many monasteries, as did St Benedict. But we are being asked today at the Annunciation of Holy Mary to turn our backs on our past lives, whatever has been good or not-so-good about those lives. We are each being asked to accept ourselves as we are, and to wait for the Lord to act in us and through us. As our Dean, Father Gregory reminded us a few weeks ago: “Sometimes we wait on the Lord; and sometimes the Lord waits on us.” It might be added that often we do not know whether we are waiting on the Lord or the Lord is waiting on us, but when events begin to happen that we had not expected we can know that our waiting is over. We can learn to trust the unexpected wisdom of God, just as did Holy Mary.
The readings on wisdom set by the Orthodox Church for today’s feast of the Annunciation are very encouraging, especially Chapter 9, Verses 10 and 11, of the Book of Proverbs: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and [the] counsel of the saints is understanding. . . For by Me [says the Lord] your days will be multiplied, and years of life will be added to you.” That possibility—that the Lord will guide and lengthen the remainder of our lives—is open to each of us if we choose to seek wisdom—not someone else’s wisdom, or something that is impossible for us, but the wisdom that the Lord wishes to give to each of us.
For example, we can become aware that the announcement of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary was not only a statement about the imminent birth of the Messiah, but also a statement about how Christ was to be raised on earth. When Holy Mary said to Gabriel: “May it be done to me according to your word,” she as the Theotokos was accepting the responsibility with St Joseph of being the parent of Christ. She was embracing the life not only of giving birth to Christ, but of nurturing Him, of helping Him to grow to maturity. As parents, we accept that same responsibility for each of our children—not only for birth, but for preparing them for life. That is one of the reasons we go to Holy Communion—as a model for them to show them not only how to live as children, but how we live as adults close to Christ. Ultimately, each of our children is responsible for their own lives independently of our parenting, just as the Theotokos found that the childhood Christ became the suffering and redeeming Saviour. She did not make that choice: Christ himself did. However, the Theotokos and each of us can still raise their children to the best of their ability, seeking to give them roots and wings—the roots of security and the wings of independence.
One of the final readings for today’s feast is also from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 8, verses 22 to 30; and that reading sets out for us a representation of wisdom in which wisdom says to us: “The Lord created me as the beginning of His ways, for the sake of His works. Before the present age He founded me [that is, wisdom], in the beginning. Before He made the earth and before He made the depths, before He brought forth the springs of the waters, before the mountains were established and before all the hills, He begets me. The Lord made countries and uninhabited spaces and the habitable heights of that beneath the sky. When He prepared the sky, I [wisdom] was present with Him, and when He marked out His own throne on the winds. When He made strong the clouds above and when He made secure the springs beneath the sky, when He made strong the foundations of the earth, then I [wisdom] was beside Him, as a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him, rejoicing in the world, His earth, and having my delight in the sons of men [that is, in humanity, the climax of creation].”
To conclude, we still share in that magnificent vision of the creation in which the Lord created wisdom “as the beginning of His ways, for the sake of His works;” and that wisdom still reigns today as “a master workman [of the Lord] rejoicing in the world, His earth” and in humanity, the climax of His creation. So let us share the joy of the Theotokos that Christ would be born from within her and that she would nurture Him to maturity; and may her joy inspire us to raise our children to maturity. Let us celebrate this feast—not only today and but for the rest of our lives. Just like the Theotokos, we can participate with wisdom in the life of Christ and His Church.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise
to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn