In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” 35 And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 36 And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Fourth Day of Theophany:
The Promised King
The heart of the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Mother of God hinges on who this child actually is. Following his naming the child Jesus, which means Savior, Gabriel gets more specific:
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Jesus is the Messiah, the faithful One who was prophesied and promised to Israel, the Savior for whom they have been waiting. He is also the eternal King of the house of David, the fulfillment of another promise from God, that King David’s descendant would rule forever, not only over Israel, but the entire world. From the Old Testament we read from the Psalms and Daniel:
And I will make him the first-born,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
My steadfast love I will keep for him for ever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of the heavens…
Once for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
His line shall endure for ever,
his throne as long as the sun before me. (Psalm 88/89:27-29, 35-36)
And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever. (Daniel 2:44)
When also read in Psalm 2 about the Lord’s anointed, i.e. his Christ, as king over Zion, i.e. the Church. The king is a begotten Son, i.e. a king without beginning or end, the Son of God. He is king over the nations, and all earthly rulers are warned to serve and trust him as king, and by extension, everyone who lives as subjects of the king.
This king, by his very nature as the Son of God, demands and is worthy of our allegiance and worship, not because he is a despot, or even a benevolent dictator. God is Love, and so he reigns as our loving Creator, desiring nothing more than his love to be reciprocated by his creation, his creatures. His love is demonstrated by God taking on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, making union with him possible.
“Sons” of God
Through baptism, by responding to God’s love, his gift of union with him, with a resounding yes, or “Let it be,” we become sons of God, citizens of his Kingdom, and inherit and share his divine blessings – hope, healing, love, unity, yeranootyoon (the Beatitude life). In this Sunday’s epistle reading, St. Paul makes clear that God adopts us into his Kingdom, not as slaves, but as heirs:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.
We are to enjoy his Kingdom, yes, serving our King as his subjects, not out of slave obligation, but rather a service born out of love, out of intimate union. After all, to be the “son of” God is to be of the same nature as God. The Spirit of his Son is sent into our heart, the very seat of our being, and we are transfigured, made like him, insofar as we allow his presence to be a reality in our life and in the lives around us.
When we allow the Incarnation of Christ, God in the flesh, as King, to rule in our lives, we are made heirs to his divine love, his blessings, here and now, in this present moment. What are those obstacles that keep us from living in our natural state, that being in union with God as his sons and daughters? What prevents God’s life, love, and healing from freely flowing in and through us, from reigning in our hearts?
Mary’s Role in Salvation
What we sing, and by virtue of singing, what we pray, causes us to ponder the person and role of Mary and her presence in the Church, and it is difficult to miss the intimate role she plays in our salvation. Read, for example this verse from the Introit sung in the Armenian Church on the Feast of the Theophany of Jesus Christ, the Church’s celebration of his incarnation and baptism:
O Mother of God, confessing, the Orthodox Church adores you; for while the many-eyed Cherubim and the fiery thrones and the six-winged Seraphim could not dare to look at the Incorruptible Lord, you bore him in your womb without seed like a handmaiden. And you gave birth to the God of all as a man—the one who took body from you, the ineffable Word—for the salvation of the world and life for our souls.
To some, it may be alarming to think that Mary, another human being in need of a Savior, which she most certainly was despite her purity, would or could play any kind of role in our salvation. This, of course, would depend on how one thinks of salvation. When we reflect on her presence elsewhere in our Church tradition, therefore, in our life of prayer, we may discover that the Mother of God does, in fact, play a role in our salvation, our healing. After all, to save is to help, rescue, heal, and protect.
Truthfully, God has chosen to enter, incarnate himself, to cooperate with humanity rather than just invade it and demand blind loyalty. And so, integrally, each of us, as well, has a part to play as healers in his plan of salvation.
The Virgin Mary and Holy Badarak
During Badarak, Jesus Christ is present and revealed, uniquely and especially coming to his people in the reading of the Holy Gospel, and also in the Holy Communion of his Body and Blood. To this extent, the Badarak is interpreted in terms of the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, the mystery of God with us in the person of Jesus Christ who came to us in the flesh of the Virgin Mary. Consequently, the mystery of Mary is present in the very act of Holy Communion.
Perhaps the following image will assist our understanding how this is the case. Consider the ancient custom in Armenian Churches of placing an image of Mary and the Christ Child over the altar table where Holy Communion is celebrated. As the community, including the celebrant, face eastward to pray, this image is the focus of our attention, the one thing that is consistently facing us.
Why do we prefer this image and not something else, such as a cross, or an image of the crucifixion of Christ, or his resurrection? After all, the focus of the Eucharist is the presence of Christ, no? Why an image with Mary proportionately larger than our Savior? Is this evidence the ancient Church got it wrong for the centuries she has been placing this image at her altars?
The Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the bread and wine becoming the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, is not only a reminder, but a participation in the one Incarnation of Jesus Christ. In fact, in the beginning of Badarak, during the presentation of the gifts, the celebrant silently prays over the bread and wine, three times making the sign of the cross over them as he repeats Luke 1:35 each time:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…
Of course, we know the rest of this from the Gospel reading for Sunday,
…therefore the child to be born will be called holy,
the Son of God.
The connection between the Incarnation and what takes place at the altar in the bread and wine could not be any more clear.
The image of the Virgin with her infant Son, then, is an image of the incarnation of Christ, when the Virgin Mary became the living temple of the Lord. It is through her that salvation was brought into the world in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
This does not mean the Virgin Mary has accomplished the redemption required by her Son through his birth, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. She is not our Savior, but she certainly, as the God-Bearer (Asdvadzadzeen), has a role as conduit to our salvation.
The icon to the left is an explicit image of the Incarnation: the Holy Spirit in the form of a star entering, breaking through temporal time (the golden band) from the (blue) eternal realm; the Virgin Mary’s lap is an altar for the Body of Christ, while the Magi, those who travelled from afar, kneel before the altar and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Again, the message of Badarak as incarnational is unmistakable.
And so what better image to place above the table upon which the chalice containing the gifts of the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, than the Son of God seated upon the lap-altar of the Mother of God.
Incarnation and Baptism
As the Holy Spirit comes down upon the Mother of God to impregnate her with the Son of God, so also, the same Holy Spirit comes down upon the gifts we offer as individuals and as the Church – the bread and wine are the fruits of our labor, a symbol of what sustains life and a representation of our utter dependence on a Creator-Savior.
These gifts are then given back to us in the form of union with God, his Incarnation. His flesh and blood are made one with our own, just as they were made one in the Virgin’s womb. Through this Eucharistic union, this display of gratitude and thanksgiving, we are saved, made whole, healed, forgiven, and renewed.
Recreation and renewal
Similarly, the recreative waters of baptism are likened to the amniotic fluid of the Virgin’s womb. As the Church Fathers teach, the Holy Spirit impregnating the Virgin also prefigures our rebirth to a new life through baptism. The Holy Spirit who filled the Virgin’s womb is the same Spirit at the Jordan, and is the same Spirit who fills the baptismal font. Armenian Church theologian, Vigen Guroian, commenting on typical depictions of Jesus’ baptism, writes:
Eastern icons of Christ’s baptism typically depict the waters of the Jordan in dark shades, so that the river has the appearance of a cave, reminiscent of Hades. Often a serpent or dragon figure lurks in the water. Christ, whom John the Baptist blesses, hallows the water and transforms it from a liquid tomb into the river of eternal life by his own bodily presence. The waters are once again the medium or amniotic fluid of life, the life of a New Creation in Christ. (The Melody of Faith, p. 121)
The Feast of Theophany celebrates creation and its renewal, this taking place through the birth and baptism of Jesus Christ. This new life, this re-creation is ours, it is a reality because Christ’s human nature is our nature.
Through his renewed human nature, he gives us a new life, capable of living as holy citizens in his Kingdom, as we emerge from the liquid tomb to new life. We possess this renewed life through baptism into his new race, his divine, mystical Body, the Church. St. Paul to the Romans, writes:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
Cleansers of the world
And as his sons and daughters, his citizens, his apostles, the Church becomes “cleansers of the whole world.” During Badarak, the priest prays silently:
Holy Father, you who have called us by the name of your Only-begotten and have enlightened us through baptism of the spiritual font, make us worthy to receive this holy mystery for the remission of our sins. Impress upon us the graces of your Holy Spirit, as you did upon the holy apostles, who tasted it and became the cleansers of the whole world. (p. 45)
What does it mean, or what would it take, or is the Armenian Church already today’s “cleansers of the world?”
The Incarnation and the Present Moment
And so, like the Virgin Mary, we become cleansers of the world, fulfilling our role in God’s plan of salvation, his plan of renewal and recreation. Our recreation is to rejoice! St. Paul tells the Church,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything… (Philippians 4:4-6)
Through the Incarnation, the eternal Word became flesh. By wedding himself to humanity, by immersing himself into the dregs of humanity, not as an objective observer, but by becoming who we are, beginning in the Virgin’s womb, he plunged himself into our suffering, joined us in our joy, uniting his divine essence with our very being.
Life is literally a party, and it started when Jesus Christ, God-incarnate, “walked” in.
Eternal life is now
Making our nature his nature, Jesus, the King, assumes our limitations, suffers our pain, bears the burden of our sins, dies our death, and through Holy Communion with Jesus Christ – the bread and the wine, as well as his momentary presence with us in the mundane, the extravagant, and even the tragic – we experience bliss and joy, the Beatitude life, even in suffering.
The gift of the incarnation and baptism of Christ is the power to experience his immanence, his salvation, his eternal life, now, in this eternal moment, and give thanks for it. One mid-twentieth century Anglican theologian invites us to,
Ask the Holy Spirit to open our minds to the realization of the truth from which all the joy and power of Christianity proceeds, the truth of the Word made flesh – that the eternal life of God is given to man here and now in the flesh of each moment’s experience.
Again, he writes about the Incarnation fleshed out in our daily, momentary lives:
By the Incarnation this life, together with the pain and death involved in it, is made one with God and take up into heaven. Thus the Mass is an anamnesis, a re-calling from eternity to the present, not only of Christ’s death and passion, but also of his “glorious resurrection and ascension.” The Body of Christ, the Host and the Church is his risen and ascended Body.
Abstract knowledge vs. experiential knowledge
Admittedly, much of the above is “theological,” but the invitation, the goal of Christianity, is to concretely live out theology (“knowledge” of God) as experiential knowledge. As we all know, knowledge is not always knowing. And so, is the Incarnation, the birth of God through the Virgin Mary, a historical event about which we only theologically know, and even then, partially? In other words, does it stop with the historic Jesus?
Or has the Incarnation become what Jesus intended, not a theological topic, a historical event, or merely a feast within the liturgical year, but a daily experience, a momentary, now–knowledge of God? Do we know, experientially, that God has set us free through his Son to enjoy and appreciate the gift of union with him? In what ways do we express that intimate knowledge?
We can begin by giving thanks through a life of holiness, which begins with a realization of our union with God. We can also become children, full of wonder, eyes wide open with the joy of play and discovery, experiencing the world, moment by moment, through the lens and eyes of a poet, dependent, and not yet identified by insecurities. In 1908, German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote the following advice to a young aspiring poet, which directly corresponds to how we are to live as poets in order to experience God’s divine presence:
If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
As well, children may be unable to articulate their notion or experience of God, but they know it. Jesus tells us,
Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
After all, God is ineffable, and it is in that inexpressibility, that void (“the cloud of unknowing”), that we, in a child-like way, mystically encounter God’s union with us, and not only discover, but relish and take pleasure in the ineffable joy as the fruit of that union. Khorhoort khoreen…
Mary’s Role in Salvation Revisited
Back to the role the Mother of God plays in our salvation. There are numerous other theological ways to understand it, including her role as the ‘New Eve.’ But one other way to answer how the Virgin Mary plays a role in our salvation (vs. the utilitarian view that she was merely a borrowed vessel for the purpose of biologically birthing the Messiah), is to go back and read the above removing the Virgin Mary from the equation. One could easily see how the entirety of God’s plan of salvation would collapse.
God cooperates with humanity
The simple truth is that God does not depend on us for anything, but out of love which emanates from his very being, chose to cooperate with humanity, and his incarnation involved a young, faithful virgin dedicated to the Temple.
As a result, the Virgin Mary is the exemplar, the representative of human cooperation and communion with God. So intimate is her communion with the Son of God, by way of her womb, as well as in her heart, in her actions, her Let it be, that all of us are called to be in such communion with him as she was, our daily, momentary prayer also being, “Let it be unto me according to Your Word.”
Be a handmaid
And therein lies the challenge. What does it mean to be a handmaid? What would our lives look like if we really meant the words “Let it be?” Do we prefer other distractions, counterfeit versions of eternal life? Do we worry what others will think if we give more of our life to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and the authentic mission of the Church?
The Virgin Mary knew by uttering the words, “Let it be,” her reputation would be ruined. Who would believe her, someone not even married, and someoene dedicated to the Temple as a virgin? She put aside what could be a life of shame and rejection, because she trusted God, and embraced her role in his plan of saving the world through the Messiah, the Son of God and King of the house of David.
Yeghetsee, yeghetsee, yev yeghetsee…
“Let it be” is the prayer of the faithful. In fact, “Let it be,” or in Armenian, «Եղիցի» [Yeghetsee] is both the first word of God, when he created light, as well as the prayer of the Virgin Mary. (see Genesis 1:3 «Եղիցի լոյս:» cf. Luke 1:38 «Եղիցի ինձ ըստ բանի քում:» in the Armenian Bible).
“Let it be to me according to Your Word” was not the assent of a single maiden, but of humanity as a whole, on our behalf. As we share with God the same creative word, Yeghetsee, we participate and share in the creative work of Jesus Christ – his love, his miracles, his peace, his forgiveness, his power over evil, demons, anxiety, and addictions. Again, as we are united to the Word through his Incarnation, our recreation (re-creation) is to rejoice, give thanks, and enjoy his gift of union in every moment, the Eternal Now, as newly created creatures.
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. (II Corinthians 5:17)
And so let us, the faithful of the Armenian Church, like the Mother of God, agree to partake in a life of communion with a God who not only chose to save us, but also chose to involve us in his plan of salvation. May we, as individuals and as parish communities, cooperate with God to accomplish his will in our lives, and in the lives of others. Lord, Jesus Christ, “Let it be to us according to Your Word.”