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The Words of Our Mother
A Sermon on the Annunication
My brothers and sisters, we arrive today at one of the most joyful feasts of the entire Church year. Amidst the desert of Great Lent, the Annunciation comes as a true oasis for our parched and thirsty souls. As the troparion of the feast exultantly exclaims: “Today is the fountainhead of our salvation, and the revelation of the mystery which is before the ages!”
And truly, the grace of God reveals today not just a mystery, but the mystery. In Greek this feast is called “Evangelismos,” a name directly connected to the word “evangelion” — that is, the Holy Gospel. Today’s feast is indeed the “fountainhead,” which is to say the source of our entire salvation, and it contains within itself the entire mystery of the Gospel of Christ — and indeed, the entire history of the human race, from its beginning in the Garden of Eden to its ending at the great and terrible day of the Second Coming of the Lord.
“Behold, I make all things new” our Savior proclaims in the Apocalypse of John (Rev. 21:5), and these divine words echo throughout all of human history. But on no day in all of human history do His words resound more powerfully than they do on this day. Truly, my brothers and sisters, it is hardly possible to exaggerate the glory and majesty and joy of today’s feast; when we begin to understand it in its fullness, it scarcely seems to fall short even of the glory of Pascha itself.
Today, the primeval Fall of Man is reversed; today, the disobedience of our First Mother Eve is set aright by the obedience of Mary, the Second Eve. Today God Himself descends, that the footsteps of God from which we fled in Eden might be heard on this sinful earth once more, summoning each and every one of us to at long last return home. Today, deification itself — which we tried to steal from God in Eden — is offered by Him freely to us all; today the Tree of Life is planted within the Virgin’s womb. Today the Judge Himself comes — no longer to pronounce a curse against us, but instead to take upon Himself that very curse, and to suffer even unto death in order to bestow upon us sinners life everlasting.
And so, my brothers and sisters, even the Fall itself — that horrific victory of the Devil, the worst thing that ever happened to the whole race of man — is transformed before our own eyes into a pale shadow and an unwitting prophecy of the great and glorious mystery which is made manifest today.
But what kind of greatness, and what kind of glory? On that fateful day so many centuries ago, the first Eve stretched forth her hand thinking to make herself and her children into gods, yet in reality cast us all headlong into the abyss of hell. But today the New Eve bows her head and utters a few simple, humble words which — through the grace of God — raised us all up to Heaven, setting human nature upon the very Throne of Divinity and making the children of men into gods by grace.
What were these words spoken by Mary? What words had the power to reverse the entire flow of history and time? What words could undo all of the sin and brokenness and misery which had multiplied ceaselessly throughout so many countless centuries and lifetimes of men? What words could themselves bring forth the Pre-eternal Word, allowing God Himself to step into the world, and — in a single moment of time — to renew all creation and rewrite the entire history of the human race?
“Be it unto me according to thy word.”
Such simple, meek and quiet words, spoken by a young girl in Palestine two thousand years ago.
Yet how long, and hard, and winding was the road that led to the utterance of these few humble words! The entire history of the world — from the moment when Adam and Eve were barred from Eden by the flaming sword of the Cherubim, to this very moment when the Mother of God is greeted by the voice of the Archangel — the whole long tragedy of the human race was allowed to unfold by God precisely and solely so that these few words could at long last be spoken. From Seth, to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from Joseph and his brothers to Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh, from Joshua and Rahab to Saul and Jonathan, from David, Bathsheba and Uriah to Solomon and Manasseh, from Elias and Elisseus to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel: all of the prophets and righteous ones, all of the saints and sinners who ever walked upon this earth, every single one — without exception — lived and died under the prescient and compassionate and all-powerful Providence of God so that finally there would come this one young girl, Mary, full of grace, who could finally say with her whole heart to the Lord: “be it unto me according to Thy word.”
It is only these words that can make sense of all the senseless history of humankind. It is only these words that can give any true meaning or purpose to our lives. Everyone, everywhere asks: “What does it all mean? What is this all for?” The truth of our lives is that each and every one of us was born into this world for one reason, and one reason only: so that after a lifetime of pain and joy, of sin and repentance, of suffering and fellowship and loss, we too might finally learn to say to God: “be it unto me according to Thy word.”
It is no easy thing to say. There is a reason why it took thousands upon thousands of years before even one young girl could be found who would say it with her whole heart.
But though it is no easy thing to say, it is the only thing worth saying. There is only one thing that we human beings truly possess, only one gift that we can truly give to God: our freedom. And it is only when we, with our whole hearts, give this freedom entirely to God — in an act of complete love and total surrender — that we will finally begin to know true freedom, that we will finally begin to taste real and everlasting joy, that we will finally and at long last begin to truly live.
But the fact remains: if we wish to live, we first must die. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). This is “the revelation of the mystery which is before the ages:” the mystery of the Annunciation is the mystery of the Cross.
It is easy to forget, but the simple truth is that when the Mother of God said: “be it unto me according to thy word,” she was doing nothing less than consenting to her own death. Under the Mosaic Law, a betrothed woman was liable to be stoned if she was found to have committed fornication — of which the Mother of God most certainly knew she might well be accused. But she made no protest, and did not even seek any assurances of the Archangel; she simply said: “be it unto me according to thy word.”
And mark it well: if once we truly say these words, they will lead us to nowhere else but the Cross. Although it turned out that God did not ask the Mother of God to lay down her own life at this time, nevertheless it was not for a life of happiness and tranquility that He spared her. The prophecy she would soon hear from the Righteous Simeon would indeed find its fulfillment: “yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35). And in fact, the cross appointed for her by God turned out to be infinitely heavier than the one she might have expected to receive on this day: instead of her own cross, she would one day be asked to stand and suffer at the Cross of Her own Son and God.
In a just few short days we ourselves shall stand again at the foot of the Cross, and hear the Son of God echo the words of His Mother in saying to His Father: “Not My will, but Thine be done.” And as she stands and watches the horrific events of Great and Holy Friday unfold, the Mother of God reveals to us an even deeper aspect of “the mystery which is before the ages:” when we surrender totally to God, we do not surrender ourselves alone. No, we must truly “commit ourselves, and one other, and all our lives unto Christ our God.” We must become willing to say: “be it unto me according to Thy word” regarding absolutely everything and everyone that we love and hold dear in this life. We must surrender everything to God. We must offer everyone to God. When we at last ascend the Cross, we must leave absolutely nothing we care for behind us on this earth.
But there, hanging upon the Cross, we will begin to know what it truly means to become a god. In the bitterness of the gall, we will begin to taste what it means to become a partaker of the divine nature. And as we hang upon the Cross together with our Savior, we will find with wonder that we have in fact lost nothing, but that God has returned everything to us a hundredfold (cf. Matt. 19:29). Because on the Cross — and only on the Cross — will we finally begin to learn what it means to be truly human, to be sons of the New Adam and daughters of the New Eve. We will begin to see for the first time the world we thought we knew so well, but transfigured now and radiant with the Uncreated Light of the Trinity. And we will begin to know, at long last, what it means to love with the perfect and unconditional and self-emptying love of God.
It is the only thing worth knowing.
And so may God grant each one of us the strength and courage and wisdom to say for ourselves alongside the Mother of God today: “be it unto me according to Thy word.” But if we are perhaps not quite ready to surrender ourselves so completely, if we are perhaps still too feeble or too afraid, if we are perhaps still struggling to prepare ourselves to utter those great, and glorious, and sweet, and supremely painful words of our Mother, then let us at least — as often as possible — say quietly to Her along the way:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee! Blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of Thy womb; for Thou has born the Savior of our souls. Amen.