Joy of All Who Sorrow

The Feast of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos & The Sunday of the Holy Cross

Gospel [Luke 1:24-38 (§3); Mark 8:34-9:1 (§37)]

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

Dear father, brothers and sisters: S Prazdnikom! Happy Feast!

Today, we come to the Third Sunday of Great Lent the mid-point of the Fast and it is fitting that at this point of intersection, at the Cross-road of our Lenten Struggle, we come to the Feast of the Sacred and Life-giving Cross. Amidst all the different commemorations we will make over the Sundays of Lent, from the Triumph of Orthodoxy through to St Gregory Palamas, St John Climacus or St Mary of Egypt, our Feast today reminds us of where our Lord is heading to, to His Cross on Golgotha. Very unusually, however, today we are not in our Lenten Purple vestments, instead we are in bright blue for the Most Holy Mother of God, as today we see a beautiful coincidence of the Feast of the Precious and Life-giving Cross and the Annunciation of the Theotokos. Nothing that happens in our life and time in the Church is a coincidence. We are in Sacred Time and it is good for us to consider what God might be telling us through this strange conjunction of the Feast of His deeply and awesomely Mysterious conception in the womb of the Theotokos with the Feast of the Cross. What has Golgotha – the place of His death – have to do with Nazareth – the place of His conception. To help us unpick this, let us meditate together on our Gospel reading for this Feast of the Annunciation and seek to understand how this relates to the Gospel reading from St Mark on the carrying the Cross. As is our custom, we shall turn to our holy father St Dimitry of Rostov to help us interpret the Gospel from Luke, and then to St Irenaeus the Bishop of Lyons to understand how these two feasts relate to each other.

And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.

Our Gospel reading starts with a reminder of the miraculous conception of St John the Baptist to his righteous parents Elizabeth and the High Priest, Zacharias. Of course, there is a long and venerable tradition in the Old Testament of righteous aged couples, long after their years of natural child bearing, miraculously being granted children. We can think of the Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel as well as the parents of the Mother of God, Joachim and Anna who we commemorate at the dismissal of ever Liturgy. Although the couple were righteous and faithful in the eyes of God, they had a great sorrow which was that God had not blessed them with children. However, following the visitation of the Archangel Gabriel to Zacharias as he was offering incense in the Temple as High Priest that year, even at their advanced old age, Elizabeth and Zacharias then went on to conceive a son, who would be St John the Forerunner of the Lord. When Elizabeth discovered that she was pregnant, she was full of joy, as the Lord had taken ‘away my reproach among men’. This miraculous conception acts though as a suitable framing for the greatest and most miraculous conception there ever could be.

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

For those who have visited the Holy House in Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, will have a very accurate impression of the size and shape of the house where Mary lived with Joseph in the town of Nazareth. The Virgin had been given to the elderly widow Joseph not in order that he live out a normal married life with her, but that he, as a righteous and elderly man, might be the Guardian of her virginity. For, as we know from Church Tradition, Mary had been given as a young child to live in the Temple and to be especially dedicated to God. As St Dimitri states in his homily for the Feast,

For about 12 years the immaculate Virgin lived in the Temple, practicing ceaseless noetic prayer, doing handiwork and immersing herself in the law of the Lord by reading holy books day and night.

St Dimitri also relays that many of the church fathers speak of the Virgin’s zealous interest in the prophesies surrounding the coming of the Messiah and how this would happen. However, when the time came for her to leave the Temple, around the age of 14, due to her coming of age, she refused the suggestions of the High Priests that she should now get married and raise a family. The Virgin Mary knew she had been dedicated to God and wished to maintain her virginity and purity. It was through the High Priest, Zacharias, that Joseph became chosen as the one to Guard the Virgin, and under the cover of marriage, to enable her to preserve her vow to the Lord.

As St Dimitri says,

In the house of her betrothed, the immaculate Virgin continued to live as she had in the Holy of Holies. She spent all her time rapt in mental prayer, reading sacred books and doing handiwork. For her, Joseph’s home was a temple of prayer. She never left it, but remained inside, fasting and keeping silence.

What purity, what prayer, silence and holiness must those small humble walls of Joseph’s house, the Holy House in Nazareth have seen? In his homily, St Dimitri emphasizes that in the 1st century, Galilee in general and Nazareth in particular were despised by the Jews as it was regarded as a largely heathen, and Gentile place full of sinners and unbelievers. Hence, as we heard just a couple of weeks  ago, ‘can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ as Nathaniel said to Philip. But even in this small detail we can see the will of God. As St Dimtri says –

Where did the Lord deign to settle His immaculate Mother? Not in Judea, in the illustrious city of Jerusalem, but in little Nazaereth, in sinful Galilee, to make clear that He came to earth for the sake of sinners.

And it was some four months later after she moved into Joseph’s hme that the Virgin then received the Archangel Gabriel.     

And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

And again, as St Dimitri points out in his homily, it is noteworthy that the Archangel finds the Virgin at home –

He found Mary not outside her room and house, on the streets of the city, amid crowds engaged in worldly conversations, or even busy at home, attending to the cares of life; but keeping silence, praying, and reading, as ikons of the Annunciation frequently show.

Indeed, quite possibly, as the Fathers say, she was yet again at that moment pondering the Mystery of Salvation and those words of Isaiah – ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’. St Dimitry also relays that according to St Andrew of Crete, the Archangel had carefully considered how he should bring this wondrous news so as not to startle and overwhelm the Virgin. After thought, the Archangel thus determined to ‘announce the joy, and then the wondrous mystery’.

And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

It is interesting here to contrast the reaction of the Righteous Zacharias the High Priest when the Archangel came to him in the Temple with the reaction of the Virgin. As you will recall, when Gabriel came to Zacharias we read that, as soon as he saw the angel, ‘he was troubled, and fear fell upon him’. However, note when the Virgin sees the angel, there is no terror or particular surprise, she is troubled more by what he says than who he is. As St Dimitri says,

Angels did not terrify the Maiden, for they were her usual visitors in the Holy of Holies where, according to St Germanus, an angel fed her daily.  

She was troubled by what he said – that she should be ‘blessed … amongst women’ – due to her extreme humility. Her life was one of silence, simplicity and meekness. She was in no way used to being spoken of in such exalted terms.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Although according to some of the Fathers, the Virgin had received some revelation or intimation whilst she was in the Temple that she would be the one who would give birth to the Messiah, and Saviour of the world, this was the definitive moment when she explicitly and unequivocally received the confirmation of God’s plan for her within the economy of the world’s salvation. But again look at our Lady’s reaction to this extraordinary revelation –

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

She in no ways doubts that the Messiah, that God shall come, and that she will give birth to Him, but that how she will give birth whilst keeping her virginity, and her sacred vow to God in tact.

St Dimitri cites St Ambrose, who comments on the Virgin’s response to the Archangel –

Fitting did the Virgin ask the angel, How shall this be? She had read the prophesy that a virin would conceive, but it was only from the angel that she learned how.

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

In his response, the Archangel links back to her cousin Elizabeth, who we heard about at the very start of our reading, to remind her that nothing is beyond the will of God, there is no human or man-made barrier which can thwart God’s will and Providence: For with God nothing shall be impossible. As St Dimitri says –

If God could create Adam from dust, He can easily bring forth an infant from a virgin. If He could fashion a woman from Adam’s rib, He can certainly fashion a man in a virgin’s womb.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

And right here in the last verse of our Gospel for the Feast of the Annunciation, we see its mystical connection with our Feast of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, in the simple humble obedience of the Virgin Mary to the Will of God: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’. There is no doubt, or argument or negotiation in the Virgin’s mind. Once she is reassured that her virginity will be maintained, there is simple, heartfelt assent to God’s plan. She doesn’t consider the impact this could have on her, about her own plans, preferences or priorities. Rather, she simply believes and assents to God’s Providence. Thirty-three or so years later, in Gethsemane and in torment in His human nature at the thought the night before His Crucifixion of all that He would suffer – the Cross, the Nails, the Spear and Death – our Lord Jesus Christ expresses the same awesome and humble obedience – Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. Of course, the fact that His Life would end in this death, death on a Cross, was no surprise to our Lord, for, as it says in the book of Revelation – the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Our Lord had willed to be Crucified by His ungrateful creatures from all eternity. Just as the Virgin’s birth was mystically perceived by the Prophets in images and metaphor, so too was the Cross seen through the Prophets and Patriarchs as the instrument, Sign and ultimate weapon of our Salvation. As St Paul expresses so beautifully in that ancient hymn to Christ in his epistle to the Philippians the Cross became the ultimate expression of Christ’s supreme obedience and supreme humility –

and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

To be tortured and killed by the very creatures He had come to save, whilst having every means and every power – as God – to escape this horrific death, is the height of obedience. Following St Paul, St Irenaeus, the great 2nd century Bishop and Martyr of Lyons, sees in the Virgin Mary and our Lord what he calls the ‘recapitulation’ the fulfillment and transformation of the transgression of Eve and Adam. Comparing Adam to Christ, the second Adam and Eve to the Virgin Mary, the Second Eve, St Irenaeus writes –

And just as through a disobedient virgin man was struck and falling, died, so also by means of a virgin, who obeyed the word of God, man, being revived received life. … For it was necessary for Adam to be recapitulated in Christ, that ‘mortality might be swallowed up in immortality; and Eve in Mary, that a Virgin, become an advocate for a virgin, might undo and destroy the virginal disobedience by virginal obedience.

Finally turning to the Cross, St Irenaeus make a beautiful link between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of the Cross that we see before us –

And the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree … by means of the obedience by which He obeyed unto death, hanging upon the tree, He undid the old disobedience occasioned by the tree.

My dear father, brothers and sisters, let us marvel at the humility and obedience of our Lady the Theotokos, the New Eve and the obedience of her Son, our Lord, the New Adam. At this time of Lenten struggle and temptation, let us resist the selfish urges of that fallen, Old Man within us, putting him to death on the Cross, that in so doing we might be worthy to follow in the Way of our Crucified Saviour and His Most Pure Mother.