When a Woman is Like a Bush: Humility and the Annunciation

Luke 1:39-43; Exodus 3:1-8; Jeremiah 32:44; 33:13-16,20-22

The Hymn for this coming feast of the Annunciation proclaims:
“Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace,
The Lord is with You!

Among the many names and titles that we give to our Mother, the Lady Theotokos, the most poignant is, I think, “Full of Grace”! Here is a humble title, perfectly matched to the one who said “Yes” to God, and whom He visited in such a deep and powerful manner. Perhaps we are so used to hearing this said of holy Mary that we don’t consider its content: “full of grace” tells us about God’s sovereign action in the life of this willing young woman. Grace speaks of the presence of God, the gift of God visiting her life, in a way that would then fill up the entire world: Gabriel, the troparion tells us, “announces the coming of Grace.” Jesus once said that the one who received the Holy Spirit was like a spring welling up to life for others; this is true in a very particular way of the one who bore the Creator of the World. He made her womb more spacious than the heavens, filling her with His very self.

Of course, the Incarnation of God by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin was not a stand-alone event, unique though and climactic though it was. It was the pinnacle of the many dramatic visitations of God among His people. He appeared to Abraham by means of the angel of the LORD, and gave the covenant promises. He appeared to Jacob in a dream at Bethel, and by means of that mysterious wrestling visitor. Even more dramatically, in Exodus 3, He appeared to Moses in the wilderness, telling him to remove his sandals on this holy ground, showing his eternal life in an unconsumed but burning bush, and declaring His ineffable name, I Am Who I Am. We read from this passage in the Vespers for the Annunciation:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn. So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moreover He said, “I am the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. And the Lord said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites.” (Exodus 3:1-8)

Of this crucial event, St. John of Damascus comments, “The burning bush is an image of God’s Mother . . . If, therefore, the ground where the image of the Theotokos was seen by Moses is holy ground, how much more holy is the image itself?” Indeed! If the very place where God appeared to Moses is holy, how much more is that which the Lord allowed to contain His glory—not just ineffably in the bush, but deeply, incarnationally and really in the womb of the Theotokos! What had been appearance becomes reality with the Annunciation. God speaks, Mary responds, and the baby takes up residence within her. The phrase “full of grace” reminds us that “grace” is short-hand for God Himself and not only a way of speaking about a gift that He gives. God can hallow the ground or a bush—and chooses also to fill a young woman with His very presence. With Mary, we see the full potential of Humanity, for He has made us after His own image for this very thing, to welcome Him among us. Mary’s intial “yes” to the angel is seen continuously in her willing disposition, as when she told others “Do what he tells you” at the wedding of Cana. This disposition was the humble door through which the Lord entered in all his glory—entered into the womb of the Virgin, and so into our world to bring us full salvation.

The spiritual theologian St. Gregory of Nyssa also remarked upon this strange object, the bush, that pointed forward to the life-bearing womb of Holy Mary. He comments that the luminous presence of God to Moses did not come from a natural source of light, like the stars, but from something far more humble, acting beyond its nature:

It is not from some luminary set among the stars that it sheds its radiance, which might then be thought to have a material origin, but from a bush on the earth, although it outshines the stars of heaven…. This also symbolizes the mystery of the Virgin, from whom came the divine light that shone upon the world without damaging the bush from which it emanated or allowing the virgin shoot to wither…. It is He whom Moses approached and whom today all approach, who, like Moses, free themselves from their earthly coverings and look toward the light coming from the bramble bush, at the ray shining on us from the thorns, which stand for the flesh; for as the Gospel says, that ray is the real light and the truth. (Life of Moses 2:19-25)

It is in weakness, after all, that we see God’s strength. By themselves, a bramble bush, or a womb do not shine with divine glory. But that which is highest can visit, even indwell, the lowly. And so, the remarkable story of the Annunciation unfolds. Mary, newly inhabited by our eternal Lord, goes to visit her cousin. We read of their encounter in the Gospel reading of the Matins for this feast:

Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”
And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house. (Luke 1:39-49)

Here, too, we see God’s initiative in visiting the humble: indeed Mary sings about it in her song, saying, “He who is mighty has done great things for me…” Consider the players in this drama: A young woman, an older woman, once barren, and two unborn, unseen—but not unfelt— babies! They meet in a place so unremarkable that it is not specifically named: it is simply “a city [or village, really] of Judah in the hill country.” The “hill country” of Judah was not in itself very prestigious. But it is mentioned twice by the prophet Jeremiah (chapters 32 and 33):

“In the environs of Jerusalem, in the cities of Judah, in the cities of the hill country, in the cities of the lowland, and in the cities of the Negev… I will restore their fortunes,” declares the LORD. (Jer 32:44)

“In the cities of the hill country, in the cities of the lowland, in the cities of the Negev, in the land of Benjamin, in the environs of Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah, the flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who numbers them,” says the LORD. “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah… In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. In those days Judah shall be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she shall be called: the LORD is our righteousness.… If you can break My covenant for the day, and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, My ministers. As the host of heaven cannot be counted, and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.” (Jer 33:13-16; 20-22)

Here, the prophet says that the fortunes of God’s people will be restored, and he also refers to the unbreakable covenant that God made with David and his people—the promise of the Messiah. Here, then, not in Jerusalem the holy city, but in the outskirts, in the hill country, two women of the tribe of David meet. And it is there that the older one speaks as a prophetess, filled with the Spirit of God, announcing that Mary is “the faithful mother of her Lord,” and overwhelmed that God should visit her, an older and humble woman of the hill country—“who am I?” In response, her younger cousin is astonished by God’s grace, and deflects Elizabeth’s attention away from her own faith to the great acts of God. The fortunes of the hill country, indeed of all God’s people, are being restored, and this restoration is celebrated by these women. Their moving acclamations and hymns of joy are punctuated by the joyful movement of John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb, acknowledging his “younger” cousin who is the great I AM, older than John, older than David, older than Abraham, older even than Adam.

“Today,” as we hear the from the Troparion, the angel announces “the beginning of our salvation, The revelation of the eternal mystery! … O Full of Grace, Rejoice!”

So too, in the midst of Great Lent, we also rejoice; for the Lord is with those who are of low estate, and who humble themselves before Him. Like Moses, let us take off our sandals, those earthly things that impede our ability to appreciate His grace, and let us approach the bush. Let us look to the humble Theotokos, who put herself at God’s disposal, saying “Yes.”

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