Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. James Michael Dowd, OHC
Annunciation - March 25, 2011
The Annunciation of Our Lord
Back when I was a Postulant, which isn't that long ago but seems like a century or so, I was walking down the middle-house hallway one winter's day with Brother Reginald, who was my Novice Master, heading over to the refectory for our mid-day meal. When you walk from the church toward the guest house at that time of day in winter, the sun comes right through the window of the door at the end of the hallway which leads outside. That window is shaped as a rectangle and at just the time we are normally headed to dinner during the winter, the shaft of light that comes through that window shines down onto the floor as if it were a beam of light coming from the heavens.
As we were walking over one day, I said to Reginald: “every time I see that light coming through the window, I think of the Annunciation.” To which he replied: “Oh Lord, please tell me you didn't send me another pious one!” Somewhat shocked, I responded, “no, you don't understand, it looks like so many paintings I've seen of the Annunciation in which a beam of light is coming through the window and shining on Mary you know – as the symbol – of you know...” and as my face turned red and my voice trailed off, Reginald just rolled his eyes and said: “Oh God, pious and twisted!”
The Annunciation may be my favorite feast of the entire year. It is filled with meaning and history for me – and, I think, for all of God's people. It has certainly been artistically studied in many a painting, as I was trying to tell Reginald. One of my favorites is by the 15th Century Florentine painter Filippo Lippi, who actually painted three different depictions of the Annunciation. One of them, my favorite, has the Virgin Mary inside her home, with the Angel Gabriel greeting her. The unique aspect of this painting is that coming through the window, apparently directly from heaven are the hands of God releasing the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a dove, with a ray of light coming directly from God's hands and the Holy Spirit.
I just love it that God's hands are breaking through our atmosphere in order to right things with humanity, and indeed, all of creation. And make no mistake about it, that is exactly the story that we tell on Annunciation. It is a story that begins with two people, Adam and Eve; continues with another, the Virgin Mary, and has an ending that all God's people can participate in. The main character, of course, is the Triune God who created all those people in the first place, redeems them, and calls them to be one with him at every opportunity.
If the painting tradition of the Western Church is my favorite way to picture the Annunciation, it is the spirituality of the Eastern Church that is my favorite way to understand the Annunciation. St. Athanasius of Alexandria put it simply when he said “the Son of God was made man, so that man might be made a god.” This process is called theosis and is a central piece of Orthodox monastic spirituality.
Athanasius tells us that God “deified men by Himself becoming man” and “being God, he has taken to him the flesh and being in the flesh deifies the flesh.”
So what does this mean for our lives? Maybe nothing...maybe everything...
Let's go back to our story, beginning with Adam and Eve. Now these first two prototypes of humanity were created as perfect human beings. That does not mean they were God. It means they were perfect human beings, fully alive, created not in our colloquial sense of “I'm only human” but rather as the highest form of God's creation. These perfect beings were those who God intended to become the stewards of creation, who would be able to create great art and literature, who would sing God's praises throughout the day, who would love one another and live in a peaceful and just way with each other and with all of creation. That's being “perfectly human” – not “only human.”
But another aspect of being perfectly human is God's gift of free will. In order to have a legitimate relationship, which God desires of humanity, there must be free will. You cannot force someone to love you no matter how hard you try. If God had attempted to force love out of Adam and Eve there would have been a false note to that love, and nothing false can come from God.
You'll remember that while living in the Garden, Adam and Eve were totally naked but suffered no shame. This symbolized a complete openness and vulnerability to each other, to all of creation, and to God. But having free will allowed Adam and Eve to begin to question their life in the Garden, their lack of understanding of good and evil, and even their relationship with God.
The vulnerability that Adam and Eve initially lived into so freely, ultimately became quite frightening, as it is to many people. And having free will, they began to think to themselves “why is it that God is the only one who has knowledge of good and evil. I'd like that knowledge too. If I had that knowledge I'd be in a stronger position and then I would be able to take care of myself – and not rely on God.”
Not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to God, and the desire to be in a stronger position than even God, with the intended result of being able to “take care of ourselves” is, I believe, the root of all sin – personal and communal. When we refuse, usually out of fear, to trust God in a completely vulnerable way, we find ourselves in a state of what the Greek Church calls amartia which is a state of being off-kilter or “not right” and this can lead to our becoming ashamed of our own figurative nakedness before God. This leads to an acting out of all manner of sin, destroying any semblance of a relationship with God. This is exactly where our story of Adam and Eve picks up. Despite being given everything they could possibly need, they wanted something more, without even knowing what it was they wanted.
And so thus began a process of dehumanization that would lead to Cain murdering his brother Abel, a foretaste of the hatred, massive violence – tribe against tribe, nation against nation, torture, terrorism, and the destruction of innocent life at all stages, that would grip all of God's creation in a vice of unbearable degradation. Now, without the benefit of a Garden filled with more than enough to eat, humanity had to toil in back-breaking ways just to find enough food to survive. Poverty, disease, malaise, hopelessness, all would contribute to the dehumanization of humanity and the destruction of God's creation.
Over time, this dehumanization would take its toll on all of humanity, but there was a faithful remnant, the Jewish people who, on their good days, would remember God's faithfulness in leading them out of slavery and into a land of their own while constantly calling them to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger among them. At times when they were not so faithful to God's call, prophets would rise up and remind their people, in no uncertain terms, that their role was to be faithful servants of God, that even in their darkest hours they were to remain faithful to God because God would guide them into a way forward. This would require the people to be once again, naked before God – vulnerable and open to God's love. To be perfect human beings.
One such person would exist in all of Israel, Mary of Nazareth. A young girl, really, who was so open and vulnerable to God that she could allow herself to believe the nearly unbelievable words of the Angel Gabriel. Unlike the Eve of the Garden, this new Eve, Mary of Nazareth, because of an intense life of prayer, would be able to stand before God totally naked, without shame and with great vulnerability. The Eastern Church is fond of telling the story about Mary spending her early years in the Temple studying the Scriptures and praying constantly. In the West, the tradition teaches that it was at home with her parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim that she learned to study the Scriptures and to constantly pray. The details don't really matter, what does matter is that Mary was able to accept God's Word as enough for her. She had so committed her life to waiting on the Lord and listening in the silence of her prayer, that when the Lord called she was able to respond “be it done to me according to your word.” And in believing that God's Word was enough for her, the Word, quite literally, became enfleshed in her.
And that is what St. Athanasius was talking about. It is the spirituality of theosis, which has been defined in several ways, but the definition that I most respond to states that theosis is the “participation in the life of God.” And for humanity to participate in the life of God, ultimately achieving full union with God, God had to act first, breaking through our atmosphere and sending his Son, Jesus the Christ, to begin the process of re-humanizing us. God's radical act of Incarnation even outdid the original act of Creation. For now, God's ultimate goal was to allow us to reclaim our perfect humanity by showing us just how holy a human being could be.
Jesus, the Son of God and equally the son of Mary would, through the power of his Incarnation, take on our flesh so that we could know what it was to be re-humanized – that is, made in the image and likeness of God as perfect human beings.
And this is why the Blessed Virgin Mary is seen as the model for monastics, and indeed for the whole Church. Mary did not leave home in order to do great things, to become a prophet or a judge of Israel. Mary prayed, ceaselessly. She waited on the Lord, with total patience. She listened, no doubt, with the ear of her heart. She allowed herself to be totally exposed to God, standing naked before the Holy Spirit with a profound level of trust in God and in the belief that God had created her to be a perfect human being. And when she did that, she then became available to the Holy Spirit, sent by God, to enflesh the Son of God in her.
At Vespers this evening, the lesson is taken from the Prologue of St. John's Gospel and begins with verse nine: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” That is why that light coming through the window of the door is so meaningful to me. With his Incarnation, Christ has broken through our atmosphere and made himself available to all God's children. This is our call: To respond to the Ultimate Love is a call to totally empty our beings of all the dehumanization that has been put on us by ourselves or others. And to put on the perfect humanity that God created us with – a humanity filled with light, a humanity that works for peace, lives justly, loves friend and foe alike, and, most of all, prays without ceasing and in total nakedness and availability before God. It is a humanity that is able, because God was willing to humble himself in the Incarnation, to respond – finally – to the invitation to love God that is offered to us so freely by God. Do that, and just wait and see how God enfleshes himself in you.