25 March OS 2016 – The Annunciation
The Holy Fathers are a never-ending source of illumination and delight. This morning, I was studying the commentary of Blessed Theophylact on today’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:26-38), and the saint offered so much insight in so few pages that it was hard to pick out which highlights to discuss with you. But here are three:
Regarding the angel’s greeting, Rejoice (Luke 1:28):
“Because the Lord had once said to Eve, In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children (Genesis 3:17), that sorrow is now removed by the joy which the angel offers to the woman, saying to her, Rejoice, thou who art full of grace. Since Eve had been cursed, now Mary hears herself blessed .” – from The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, trans. Rev. Christopher Stade, Chrysostom Press, House Springs, Missouri, 1997, p. 15.
The one word, Rejoice, proclaims that Mary is the New Eve, whose obedience cancelled the sentence God passed upon our race for Eve’s disobedience. Because of sin, the biological mechanism of procreation – which should be one of our more godlike traits, for it makes us co-creators of the human race with God – became the source of endless sorrows in this life and damnation in the next, as all history and literature, as well as the current disaster of insane sexual mores, teaches us. By absolute purity and chastity, Mary gives us the way out of this dreary cycle of personal destruction. She becomes the model for two new ways of life God brings into the world through the New Testament: Christian virginity and Christian motherhood. Her holy and perpetual virginity is not barren, but endlessly fruitful, and the millions of consecrated Christian virgins who followed in her footsteps have multiplied and are multiplying this fruitfulness “one hundred fold” in prayer, in good deeds, in all the works of the Gospel, giving spiritual rebirth to countless souls. Her divine motherhood is in no way associated with lust or corruption – she remains Ever-Virgin before, during, and after giving birth. Tens and hundreds of millions of Christian mothers, faithful to the Church’s laws of pre-marital virginity, marital fidelity, and the Church’s laws for the marriage bed, whose physical union with their husbands the Church has blessed and elevated by the Divine Mystery of Orthodox Matrimony, have had their fallen-Eve-experience of both pleasure and pain given proper context, corrected, healed, and sanctified by grace and by the orthopraxis of the Church’s discipline; and they have reared up vast armies of pious children who have struggled valiantly for Orthodoxy and for salvation. Generation after generation, they have justified the amazed exclamation of the pagans in the first centuries of the Church: “What women there are among these Christians!” And I think that, even in these sad times, every one of us still knows someone who merits this praise.
Regarding the Virgin’s question, How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man? (Luke 1:34):
“It was not because the Virgin did not believe that she said, How shall this be? Rather, it was because she was wise and astute, and sought to understand the manner in which this would take place. For nothing like this had ever happened before, nor would again. This is why the angel forgives her, and does not chastise her as he did Zacharias [see Luke 1:18-20], but instead explains to her how it would come about. It was fitting that Zacharias was chastised, for he knew many examples of barren women who had given birth. But for the Virgin, there was no precedent.” – The Explanation, p. 17
The Holy Virgin, then, is the model for Orthodox theologians. She begins with faith, though not “blind faith,” but faith in union with logos, with rational understanding. She questions, not because she doubts God’s word, but in order to exercise her nous (her spiritual intellect) and her dianoia (her discursive intellect) to understand more deeply, both intuitively and rationally, the mystery God is revealing to her. How sad, indeed how disastrous, is the spectacle we see today, when there are “Orthodox” seminaries whose professors not only use the methods of “scientific criticism” (a euphemism for atheistic reductionism blasphemously applied to sacred texts) but also encourage in their students a sophomoric arrogance based on having a knowledge supposedly superior to that of our fathers in the faith! Truly, in the words of the Apostle, Professing themselves wise, they became fools (Romans 1:22). How utterly different is the example of Panagia, who spent her entire youth from earliest childhood in asceticism and contemplation of the divine mysteries in the Temple of God, pondering in her heart with faith and the fear of God all the great deeds the Lord had wrought for His people, and begging God with tears day and night to send His salvation to the sad children of Eve! In response to her contemplation and her supplication, He came to dwell in her womb! How different the example of our Fathers, who struggled in martyric witness, in feats of ascetic greatness, in bold confession in the face of heresy backed by worldly power, in the power of that pure Faith found only in pure hearts! And, moreover, these Fathers were far more educated than our present day “wise men,” who cannot hold an intellectual much less a spiritual candle to their greatness. How blessed are we to inherit this vast treasury of wisdom! Let us exercise our God-given and God-beloved intellects in imbibing this wisdom, asking good questions indeed, as did Panagia, but always humbly, and based on Faith.
Regarding the angel’s words, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: therefore also that Holy Thing Which is begotten of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35):
“Here the mouth of Nestorius is sealed. For that man said that the Son of God did not take flesh by dwelling in the womb of the Virgin, but that a mere man was born of Mary, and only later was this man ‘accompanied’ by God. Let Nestorius hear, therefore, that that Holy Thing Which is being begotten [the Greek present passive participle to gennomenon, “that which is being begotten,” “that which is being brought forth”] in the womb is the Son of God. That which was carried in the womb and the Son of God are not two separate entities, but one and the same, the Son of the Virgin and the Son of God. See how the angel revealed the Holy Trinity by naming the Holy Spirit, the Power which is the Son, and the Most High which is the Father.” – The Explanation, pp. 17-18
How wonderful. All of the vast ecclesiastical and geopolitical turmoil, as well as the spiritual and intellectual struggles, and the physical sufferings, of the Orthodox Fathers of the first four Ecumenical Councils, are vindicated by these simple words penned by Luke, which express in evangelical simplicity and purity those two great dogmas of our pure Faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation. All true theology, all true life, begins and ends with the Gospel. How motivated should we Orthodox Christians be to read the Holy Gospel daily, diligently, with open hearts and searching minds! We will be rewarded ten thousand-fold in this life and in the Age to Come.
May the Incarnate Word, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who today became flesh in the womb of the Virgin, enlighten us always by His holy commandments, through the intercessions of the Most Pure Theotokos, of Blessed Theophylact, and all the Saints. Amen.
PS: Pascha approaches, and have you thought about giving Orthodox gifts to those you love? If your family and friends do not yet own them, I cannot think of a better present than the four volumes of Blessed Theophylact’s Gospel commentary. And, besides the commentaries of Blessed Theophylact, Chrysostom Press also publishes the Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints by St. Dimitri of Rostov, translated by our own GOC priest, Fr. Thomas Marretta, rector of St. Maximus Church in Owego, New York. Take a look at Chrysostom Press’s website at http://www.chrysostompress.org/.
By supporting Chrysostom Press, you are not only acquiring bedrock basic needs for your family Orthodox bookshelf, you are also supporting a vitally needed ministry which is currently much short on funds. The English-speaking Orthodox people badly need these texts to be completed, both Bl. Theophylact’s commentaries on the entire New Testament and the Lives of the Saints. The Bl. Theophylact translators have barely started the Apostolos, and Fr. Thomas still needs support to get out the last four months of the Lives. The work is going on, but financial problems seriously threaten it. So your buying these books is a “win-win” – you benefit directly from reading them and you benefit the Church by giving to an invaluable cause. You will be benefactors for all future generations of Orthodox people who read these books, they will bless your memory, and their prayers will help your souls. You are in at the ground floor of an historic undertaking! How cool is that?