Sunday, March 25, 2012

Speaking to Angels: The Significance of the Feast of the Annunciation

D.G. Rossetti's 19th century masterpiece
"Ecce Ancilla Domini" -- an interpretation
of the Annunciation

The twenty-fifth of March is the Feast of the Annunciation (some years, when it falls on a Sunday it is observed on Monday). This is a “Feast of Our Lord,” and is (along with Sundays) the only day in Lent when the season’s discipline may be relaxed. All of this means that it is an important day in the Calendar, and this (in turn) means that it has something very significant to say about the Christian Faith.

For those outside liturgical Christianity, or for those new to it, such details can seem at best curious, and at worst legalistic or taking the focus off the Gospel. There are certainly ways to use the liturgical practices of the Church—or anything else in the Christian faith, for that matter—to obscure rather than illuminate. But to suggest that because liturgical or sacramental forms can be misused they should be avoided makes no sense. The same logic would require us to give up on love, as it has been so twisted and abused through the ages.

The rankings of feasts in the liturgical calendar are a kind of shorthand for significance. The most important (called “Principal”) feasts in the Church Year point to the most important elements of the Gospel message—such as Holy Week and Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, &c. Feasts ranking a bit below these—such as the Annunciation—generally focus on some event in the New Testament which is in the service of the Principal feasts.

When the Archangel Gabriel (meaning “God is my strength” in Hebrew) visited Mary, the physical reality of God coming to dwell with humanity in Christ was set in motion. Nine months will pass until we sing of Emmanuel--God with us! This is the first feast in the “Incarnation Cycle” of the year, continuing on with the Visitation in May, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in June, and on through Christmas and ultimately the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in February. Today God enters into the human experience personally, directly, through the gift of chromosomes, flesh, feelings, and vulnerability from his mother. It is a day of awe and mystery, an opportunity to rejoice and reflect.

Beyond such formal theological significance, the Annunciation presents a remarkable moment: God’s messenger (that is what “angel” means in Hebrew) connects the unseen God with the young woman Mary. In announcing that she has been chosen by God to bring forth the Messiah, Gabriel ends up having a conversation with Mary. As the story of our re-union with God begins, a foretaste of our desired state already commences: open converse with angels. Mary’s deep humility and purity are revealed not only by her being made the vessel of the Incarnation, but by the nature of her dialog with Gabriel.

Mary’s life is the icon of the Church’s ministry in many ways. Here, she accepts a divine commission to live with a holiness and dedication that will allow God to shine forth into the world. Her questions of Gabriel are those of one seeking understanding—not mastery. Ultimately, Mary’s only desire is to be a servant of God. The entire Old Testament sought to bring forth such a response to God. The joy and wonder is that the figure who actually achieves this is a young woman of humble origins. But, given what will happen as the Gospel unfolds, this is not surprising at all, really.

As with all the feasts and fasts of the liturgical year, the Annunciation is part of a beautiful tapestry of meaning. It is both a feast of the Incarnation (“God with us” in human flesh-and-blood) and part of the whole work of salvation that culminates in the mystery of the Cross and the Empty Tomb we are about to experience in Holy Week. The collect for this feast (said as part of the Anglican translation of the Angelus in personal daily devotion) alludes to all of this by bringing these themes together in one poignant prayer:

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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