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The Cross and the Annunciation

Third Sunday of Lent: Veneration of the Precious Cross; and Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos / Heb. 2.11-18; Luke 1.24-38; Heb. 4.14-5.6; Mark 8.34-9.1

F/S/HS.  Dear brothers and sisters on this third Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, where glory and sobriety co-exist side-by-side.  To use a phrase from Fr. John’s retreat with us this last weekend: Orthodoxy is paradoxy!  In this case, the paradox of the glorious Annunciation of our Most Holy Theotokos falling on the very same day where, with sober hearts, we venerate our Lord’s Precious Cross by striving to take up our own personal crosses and follow after him.  Heavenly glory and sobriety, hand-in-hand!

I wonder dear ones how it was for you to have Fr. John Bethancourt with us this last weekend?  Some of you have written or shared personally with me how the retreat weekend was for you.    

What I can share about my own experience is that it resembled words of the two disciples who walked alongside Jesus on the road to Emmaus: They asked each other, the Apostle Luke records, Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? (Lk. 24.32).

My heart burned within while Fr. John plumbed the spiritual depths of St. Gregory Palamas and St. Isaac the Syrian, about our Lord’s ways with us.  My heart burned within on Sunday morning when he narrated excerpts from St. Gregory’s homily on the Theotokos’ Entrance into the Temple, as a little girl. 

And the bold audacity with which our Panagia dashed into the Holy of Holies, the mystery of God’s life and His providence compelling her along the way.  And how she remained there, often behind the veil, prayerfully steeping herself in the mysteries of God’s life that would form and shape her into the woman that she became.

And so this morning sisters and brothers, I want to continue in the spirit of Fr. John by taking a few minutes to weave together the Annunciation, the Precious Cross, St. Gregory Palamas and St. Isaac, and the relevance of all of these for our own spiritual life.

Why do we Orthodox Christians honor and celebrate the joyous Feast of the Annunciation when we do—during Great and Holy Lent?  There are several reasons.  But chief amongst these is a very practical reason: The average gestation time for a human baby is nine months.  The Feast of Annunciation falls nine months prior to Holy Nativity, when our Panagia gives birth to the Savior of the world, the God-man Jesus.  Uttered the Prophet Isaiah approximately 700 years before Mary was even born: Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (Isaiah 7.14).

At the Entrance of the Theotokos into the temple, the High Priest Zacharias, clothed in his priestly robes, stood that morning on the steps of the temple, to greet the child Mary, his arms outstretched, her arms reaching up towards him.  For the next ten to twelve years she would be formed in the ways of the temple, formed by her relationship with Fr. Zacharias, with the temple virgins, her soul perfecting its battle with her passions unto conforming her entire life into a life of the virtues.

Approximately 12 years into Mary’s time in the temple, she would have a most miraculous visitation, an announcement to her from not just any angel, but the Archangel Gabriel, sent by God to Mary.  That is what Annunciation means—an announcement.

The announcement that you, you O young woman, you are to Rejoice (Lk. 1.28ff).  Why rejoice?  Because you are the favored one.  You are the one blessed among women.  You—by an act of the Holy Spirit—are the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy; you will conceive and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.  He will be great and be called the Son of the Highest; of His Kingdom there will be no end.  And the angel Gabriel concludes the annunciation: For with God nothing will be impossible.

I absolutely love our Orthodox hymn Awed By The Beauty, about what Gabriel experienced as he delivered this Annunciation to Mary: Awed by the beauty of thy virginity, and the exceeding of thy purity, Gabriel stood amazed and cried unto thee, O Mother of God: “What praise may I offer thee that is worthy of thy beauty?  By what name shall I call thee?  I am lost and bewildered.  But I shall greet thee as I was commanded: ‘Hail, though that art full of grace.’”

The Apostle Luke records that Mary was initially deeply troubled by Gabriel’s announcement.  Who would not be troubled!  But her soul, steeped in prayer says St. Gregory, quickly rebounds.  Behold (I am) the maidservant of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your word.

Of all of the things that Fr. John shared with us in his homily last Sunday morning, one of the most staggering for me was from St. Gregory Palamas, about what Mary did next.  With her bold yet humble audacity, she reaches up into heaven and she grabs ahold of God—the second member of the Trinity—and literally pulls Him out of heaven and down and into her personhood, into her womb—the Word of God made flesh in her flesh.

Hence, another of our hymns about our Theotokos, titled All Of Creation: O full of grace: the assembly of angels, and the race of men, O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise, the glory of virgins, from whom God was incarnate and became a child, our God before the ages.  He made thy body into a throne, and thy womb He made more spacious than the heavens!  All of creation rejoices in thee: O full of grace.  Glory to thee, glory to thee, glory to thee.

Nevertheless dear ones, Orthodoxy is paradoxy!  Enter into our Panagia’s life the paradox that her role as the God-bearer will include the cross.  Enter into her rejoicing the life of suffering.  Enter into her life a new stage of her life, of learning to bear suffering in her soul: Her own personal suffering, the suffering of Her Son as He journeys to His Cross, and perhaps the most mysterious suffering of all: the suffering of the world that her Son will call her to embrace—what Fr. John, after St. Isaac and St. Gregory, calls charismatic shame.

Charismatic shame is the prayerful bearing within ourselves of the shame of the world, unto redeeming and healing that shame.  Says our Epistle reading this morning: For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4.15).  O our Lady, how full of grace you are!  You who, like your Son, sympathized with the weakness and affliction and shame of this world, and who, like your Son, bore these infirmities within your own soul, praying for all of humanity as you did.

Which is why that one particular icon of the Theotokos, shared by Fr. John, portrays one of her arms reaching high into heaven, rejoicing and praising God, while her other arm is outstretched downward, embracing the pain and shame of the world, and even those residing in hell. 

Our Panagia embodies the truth of a recent icon of St. Sophrony, where on the scroll held by St. Sophrony are his own words, after his beloved St. Silouan: Where one sinner resides in hell, there is our Lord holding the hand of that sinner.  Orthodoxy is paradoxy: Rejoicing while simultaneously bearing the suffering of the world unto helping redeem that suffering.  Our Panagia not only took up her own cross; she took up and subsumed into her being the crosses of those all around her, in an act of charismatic shame.

Now to you and to me dear ones.  What is the relevance of this woman’s life to our life?  The relevance of this day, where we honor side-by-side the Cross and the Annunciation of the Theotokos?

Our Panagia and Theotokos, says St. Isaac and St. Gregory, she is the prototype of our humanity.  In her is who we are called to become.  She bore God as we are to bear God.  She points to Jesus as the Savior of the world, as we are to point to Jesus.  She picked up and bore her many crosses as her Son had told her to do: Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8.34-35).

When the Theotokos reached up into heaven and pulled the second member of the Trinity down and into her womb, she pulled fire down and into her soul.  Recall Fr. John’s love of St. Isaac the Syrian.  Rather than utilizing the ancient language of purgation, illumination, and union to describe the stages of a Christian’s spiritual journey, St. Isaac instead employs language drawn from the elements of nature: earth, water, the wind, and … fire.

To be in union with our Lord, as she was in union with God, is to so experience the fire of God living within us that we become that fire.  Our heart and our life become radiant with God’s energies.  In the words of St. Peter, we become partakers in the divine nature.   

Saints Isaac and Gregory remind us that if we are to experience that fire, that partaking union with God, we must identify the crosses in our life that weigh us down.  Take up these crosses: Our passions, our judgmental thoughts, our carnal pleasuring, our absence of charity of heart.  Deny the power of these crosses by carrying them.

And where you are strong enough, carry the crosses of afflicted others.  Reach down into the dark and hold the hand of another who is lost, that they might experience being found by our Lord.  Bear within yourself their wary heart.  And along the way, pray to the Theotokos as St. Gregory did, each day seeking her alliance and her succor: Enlighten my darkness, O Lady, enlighten my darkness.  F/S/HS