ADVENT AD 2020
FROM ARCHBISHOP ANTHONY
To the Most Reverend and Right Reverend Hierarchs, Right Reverend, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics, Faithful of The Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Faithful of the Diocese of East and Southeast Asia,
the Anglican Vicariate and Friends:
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favor! The Lord is with you!
In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, with a message for a girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David; the girl’s name was Mary. The angel went in and said to her, “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by what he said, and wondered what this greeting could mean. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will be king over Israel for ever; his reign shall never end.” “How can this be?” said Mary. “I am still a virgin.” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; for that reason the holy child to be born will be called Son of God. Moreover, your kinswoman Elizabeth has herself conceived a son in her old age; and she who is reputed barren is now in her sixth month; for God’s promises can never fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it be as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
When praying or making meditations on passages from the Bible, it is important to be able to lets one’s mind go free and see where the Holy Spirit leads. The closer one is to God the freer one can be, and the further the Holy Spirit sometimes takes you. This particular passage is one that has been meditated on by millions of persons over many centuries. We have all seen the results in paintings, sculptures, poetry, on the walls of a chapel; we have read it in books of meditations; we have heard it preached in sermons; we have listened to music based on it. The wealth and variety that has resulted from this particular passage has influenced many and greatly enriched the lives of multitudes far beyond the Christian religion.
When we make a concerted effort to place this – or any other – passage in its original context, however, an astounding thing happens. Often a familiar passage like this one has been so interpreted and reinterpreted over the ages that the original purpose has been obscured or even lost. That, in its turn, can change or even falsify the fundamental teachings of the Gospel, as presented in the Bible.
Many people have taken this passage to be about the calling of Mary; indeed, I am one of them. There is a medieval story about the Angel Gabriel that I am sure you have heard. Upon Gabriel’s return to heaven the other angels crowded around asking, “What did she say? Did she agree?” Gabriel assured them that Mary had agreed to be the mother of Jesus, then following up with the inquisitive question addressed to God: “What if Mary had said “No?” What kind of backup plan was there to bring about the
redemption of humankind?” And God answered by saying “There was no other plan.”
You see how, using the importance of human freedom, this story places a “critical burden” on Mary. The whole of humanity “needs to be grateful” to her obedience to God’s request. Salvation “depends on her obedience.” But I think that you can also see how things could get a bit out of line here. The question of Mary’s obedience is important; the significance of her freedom reminds us of our own freedom; but above all, because of her choices, Mary becomes “essential to our own redemption,” our own salvation. Without Mary, Jesus would not have been born: and all that has happened as a result of the birth of the Messiah would not -- indeed, could not -- have happened. \This places Mary on a pedestal that is higher than that occupied by any other important person. In fact, that pedestal is so high, that the common humanity that we share with Mary is obscured; among some, Mary takes on almost a semi-divine nature.
(This next paragraph is key understanding Luke’s story.)
When we place the annunciation to Mary in the context in which Luke has it in his Gospel, however, it takes on a different purpose. When Luke writes us this incident, he is doing exactly the same thing that we have already seen Matthew doing. Luke is determined that his readers learn that Jesus, from the very moment of his conception, is both Messiah and the Son of God; further, Luke wants his readers to know that redemption comes to those who respond to God’s overtures, to those who in fact depend upon God. Luke’s Good News is of the action of God to bring the love of God to the people of God.
Mary’s place in this story is not that of the vehicle through whom God operated. Her function is not that of a brood-mare, a mere functionary to produce offspring. Luke respects Mary far more than that. Luke has Mary become the very first human being to respond to God’s Good News. In a way, Mary becomes the first disciple of the Gospel Mary, not Andrew. Good News cannot be good news -- or any kind of news -- unless there is someone to “hear” it and “respond” to it. That is Mary’s function in Luke’s Gospel. Mary is the first, the primary, disciple. She hears the message of Good News; she responds to the Good News.
And now the second phase of the work of the Holy Spirit – as Luke’s writings organize the Story – commences. (The Holy Spirit comes in three manifestations in Luke: first, the Holy Spirit works through the People of God; second, the Holy Spirit works through Jesus; and third, the Holy Spirit works through the new People of God, the Catholic Church.) Mary is the very first person to hear this second part of the message; and her response is the model for all of us.
Mary hears the Word of God from Gabriel: she responds by doing it: “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it be as you have said.”
While there are many other nuances and direct references to the Old Testament in this story, there is only one more to be considered here: It is the shadow of the Holy Spirit covering Mary.
In the other stories of childless couples in the Old Testament, such as Abraham and Sarah, Tamar and Judah, Manoah and his wife, Elkanah and Hanna, David and Bathsheba, the child comes about through natural intercourse. And the bible is very careful to point out that in each particular situation the intercourse is the result of desire and love, not rape or some other demand. (The child that came from David’s lust for Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband:-- that child dies. It is only after Nathan has taught David about love that he and Bathsheba can then produce Solomon.)
Each of these human stories is wondrous, and the child that is born represents two things. First of all, the child represents “loving procreation.” In a time frame where women were seen merely as vehicles for man’s desire, the bible wants people to know that the relationship between the sexes is intended to be loving and equal. When there is loving and shared desire, then the richness of God’s love fills out that love and desire, and a child is born who will carry out the purposes of God. And in each of those instances, that is precisely what happens. And in the beginning of his Gospel, Luke extends this concept to include Elizabeth and Zachariah.
But when he comes to Mary, Luke presents a different image. Mary is a virgin. Now Luke intends us to understand that Mary’s virginity means that she does not yet have sexual desire; she is not yet seeking to become a mother. She is, in fact, not quite fully a woman. She is incomplete; she is, in fact, without any real form (purpose;) her self image is void and dark. She is, in a word, much like the waste, the chaotic waters, with which the Bible begins. You remember it: “The earth was an incomplete void; darkness covered the deep; and the “spirit” of God overshadowed the chaos of the water.” It could be translated “The “power” of God overshadowed the waters.” The next thing that happens is the beginning of Creation: “Let there be light.”
Luke wants us to see that this is the New Creation. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed the waters and the first result was light; so also when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, the result is the birth of the Light of Light, the Messiah. Just as the chaotic waters were the foundation stone of creation, so the vast “emptiness” of the virgin Mary was to be the source of the newly created life for the whole world. Just as the creation depended upon the action of the Holy Spirit, so also with Mary; this virgin, this chaotic and formless being, like the waters of old, will be overshadowed and filled with the Holy Spirit. The power of God turned her into the source of all new life.
Luke uses this same metaphor again at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit comes to overshadow, empower and give life to that other new infant, the catholic church. And Luke makes it clear that Mary is also present at that birth. For the birth and life of the church is nothing less than the birth and life of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
What does this mean for us today?
It really is very simple. If we believe that anything important happened with the birth of Jesus; if we believe that his life is of any significance to the world; then we will see Mary as our model. Mary shows us how to respond to God. When God comes to us, and overshadows our chaos, God is offering us the same divine life, the same purpose, that was offered to Mary. We, who have professed our faith in the Lord God at our Baptism, we are asked to respond as did Mary. So we also simply say “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be as you have said.”
And, as from Mary, so also from us, is born the Body of Christ.
May you have a spiritually productive Advent.
Archbishop of New York
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Over the years, some have asked to have a copy of Archbishop Anthony’s Prayer. Here it is: