Sunday, March 25, 2012

Some random thoughts on the Annunciation

Today, the Holy Orthodox Church (Revised Julian Calendar jurisdictions) observe and celebrate the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos. This is one of the 11 great feasts of the year. Below are a collection of random thoughts on this day, not all of them being connected. Take them for what their worth.

1) What a great blessing that Annunciation always falls during Great Lent! And how much even more a blessing that it falls during a Sunday in Great Lent! Y, the commemoration of St. John Climacus (of the Ladder) was trumped and it is also very interesting how other liturgical churches of the Western Rite have attempted to handle it. You can read about some of those controversies here.

In spite of what other churches may do with regards to what trumps what liturgically, it is great that Annunciation is never trumped. When it coincides with a Sunday of Great Lent, the texts of the Resurrection are largely preserved. The Church understood that the feats dedicated to our Lady and those of Sunday go hand in hand together. Even when Annunciation coincides with Holy Week or Great Friday or even Pascha itself (which may happen with Old Calendar jurisdictions), Annunciation is never transferred but its service texts are combined with that of the day. The reason? Because Annunciation, the announcement that the Lord Himself was to be incarnate of a woman and the season of Lent all direct us to God's mission here on earth: the full restoration of communion between man and God. For this to happen, God had to become man and had to endure death by crucifixion and rise again on the third day to loosen us from death's grip.

The Orthros Doxasticon for this feast makes it very clear that theosis is the goal of the human existence, no matter what season, penitential of festal, we are currently in. The goal of human existence is not some mere declaration that sins are forgiven (forensic justification), though that does happen. But if that is it, that's a pretty incomplete existence. I liken it to a courtroom verdict. You're proclaimed not guilty. That's great, but what then? Forensic justification leaves one with the joy that the sins are cast from him, but where does he go from here? There is no path. Here is the text of the Doxasticon:

Today is disclosed the mystery before the ages; and the Son of God shall become the Son of Man, that by His adoption of the lowest He may grant me the highest. Of old Adam failed to become a God as he desired, so God became Man that Adam might become [as] God. Wherefore, let creation rejoice, and nature exchange greetings, for the archangel did stand reverently before the Virgin and offered her joy instead of sorrow. Wherefore, O our God, Who by Thy compassion became man, glory to Thee.

While we are currently in the Lenten contest to purify ourselves by fasting and prayer, the Annunciation is a ray of light to give us a brief respite from our struggle. Much like the feast of the Cross last Sunday was to give us hope that our labors are not in vain because Christ's victory on the Cross for us and our salvation was not in vain, Annunciation clarifies our existence and its end goal (telos).

2) The hymns on feasts of the Mother of God, particularly her Nativity, her Presentation and today's feast of Annunciation all begin with "Today." Even the Doxasiton quoted above does that. Of course, numerous hymns begin this way. This is not a ground breaking revelation. Anyone who has been Orthodox for a long time and has paid attention to the hymns knows well that "today" is one of the most common words we will hear. For some, it may be a bit tiresome. It should not be. The one thing liturgy cannot be or become is simple remembrance (anamnesis). Once liturgy becomes a simple remembrance then why break out all the hymns in the first place, why even attend Liturgy, why even receive the Eucharist? We have to be very careful that we do not fall into the pitfalls of modern Protestantism/Evangelicalism which reduces everything to mere remembrance. Remembrance will only allow intellectual assent. It, in itself, lacks transformative power.

In St. Augustine, the mind is a Trinity of Memory, Reason and Will. For us men, all three are flawed and since all three are interconnected, one aspect of the mind is not stronger than the other. Our memory extends in only one direction--backwards, but only if we have present consciousness. For the angels, their memory goes towards what we call the past, the present and the future. As a result of this, their reason is perfect and their will is aligned with that of God.

During the Liturgy, we call to mind things that have not actually happened, most particularly Christ's Second Coming. The liturgy we offer is called "rational worship." The Liturgy transcends yet still is in time. The more Liturgy becomes focused on what was as opposed to what is and what will be in holistic communion, the more we have isolated ourselves from God and the more worship becomes anthropocentric than Christocentric.

3) This feast like all the other Marian feasts hammers down Orthodox theology when it comes to the Incarnation. As some theologians have put it, Mariology is Christology. The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann is famous for saying that the Theotokos is not the great exception but the great example. This feast certainly clarifies the latter.

Granted, not every Jewish girl lived in the temple for 12 twelve years and was ministered to by the angels and certainly not every Jewish girl received news that she was to give birth to the Lord Himself. Exceptional she may have been, she was still given a choice which can be accepted or rejected. She answered "I am the handmaiden of God. May it be with me as you have said." And when it comes to God's will and His requests of us, we still have that same power to say "yes" or "no." The result of what happens when "yes" is the answer differs from person to person, naturally. But yes is still yes to the Lord whether uttered by saint, sinner or even the Mother of God.

Like I said, some random thoughts. Happy Annunciation everyone.

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