The Annunciation and the Buffered Self

Forefeast of the Annunciation / Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, March 24, 2019
Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

For if the word spoken through angels was confirmed, and every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation, which having at first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard? (Heb. 2:2-3)

This passage is appointed for this second Sunday of Great Lent, when we commemorate the great saint of the Holy Mountain and archbishop of Thessalonica, Gregory Palamas, yet this year, our commemoration coincides with another, which is the forefeast of the Annunciation. And it is on that feast which we now anticipate celebrating tomorrow that I would like us to dwell for the next few minutes.

Although that epistle reading is for this Sunday of Lent, it is very much appropriate as our thoughts turn to the Annunciation. Why? Hear again that first line I quoted, which is from Hebrews 2:2: “For if the word spoken through angels was confirmed…” The Annunciation is precisely a word spoken through an angel.

What is this word? We call to mind again this crucial moment in the history of the world. The great archangel, Gabriel himself, came to the young virgin Mary in Nazareth and spoke to her these words: “Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women!” And the archangel then told her how, being overshadowed with the power of the Most High with the Holy Spirit coming upon her, she would conceive the Son of God in her womb and give birth to Him. And with her assent, God became man at that very moment.

It is impossible to understate the importance of this feast. Without this feast, there is no Christmas. Without this feast, there is no Holy Week. Without this feast, there is no Pascha. Without this feast, the separation between God and man that our first parents instigated continues. Without this feast, there is no salvation.

The Greek name for this feast is Evangelismos, meaning “[announcing] good news.” That good news is the evangelion, the Gospel. If you have ever wondered how to express what the Gospel is, both for your children and also for anyone you know, this is where you begin: The Gospel is that God became man.

That God would become man probably sounds obvious now. Of course. This is what we believe, what we speak in the Creed, what we affirm. But sometimes I think that this belief has become “domesticated” in our hearts, such that they are no longer enflamed with the power and joy and immediacy of this moment, of this truth that in a real sense makes all other truths possible.

Our modern state exists in a profound contradiction: On the one hand, we have what is called the “buffered self,” where we build up walls of comfort and protection around our souls, and we are irritated when something disturbs that protective circle. We do so much to keep ourselves from having to sacrifice, from having to suffer loss, from having to be broken and impinged upon. It’s like taking out an insurance policy for every possible thing. We have to make sure we won’t even know that we’re being criticized, that something might break in. And this phenomenon seems to be getting even worse lately, with parts of our society now even reacting violently at merely hearing words that we don’t want to hear.

But here is the contradiction: At the same time, we want people to reach out to us, to understand us, to keep us from being alone. We’re afraid that no one will notice our suffering and our struggle. We are afraid of isolation, of being unloved. We’re afraid that when we get to the end of our lives, they will have made no impact, no difference, that we will simply be alone.

The answer to that contradiction is the Annunciation, or rather, what happens at that moment. The source of our isolation, of our tendency to buffer ourselves and to build up walls of protection, in some sense to take out insurance on our very personalities, is the loss of communion between God and our first parents Adam and Eve. When they sinned, death came into mankind, and the grace of God that had filled them and given them life was lost.

This, then, was the cure, that the estrangement between God and man should be overcome not just by God getting in touch with us and saying, “Hey, can we talk?” but by God actually becoming man. God and man are now one Person, and that Person is Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God. The Word that the Father spoke to us is the One Whom John’s Gospel calls “the Word.” Jesus is that Word. He is Himself the good news spoken by the archangel and also to us.

This is what the Annunciation is: It is the good news that the reign of death, the reign of disconnection, the reign of disintegration, the reign of demonic domination is over. The reign of the Prince of Peace, the Healing King, the Word and Wisdom and Power of God, has begun.

We are now two weeks into the Great Fast, and it has probably now begun to set in that this is not easy, if we take it even just a little bit seriously. It is not easy to say no to the desire to eat what we are accustomed to eating, to spend our time in ways that are not our custom, to give up what we are accustomed to keeping.

But if we are going to let the Word spoken at the Annunciation into our hearts, the Word that heals, the Word that will share in our suffering, the Word that will never leave us alone, then we have to make room. We cannot simply keep building the walls and taking out insurance against any kind of sacrifice.

The purpose of our Lenten efforts is not personal achievement, even a spiritual achievement. It is rather to open ourselves up to the coming of Christ. He came in the most unobtrusive, gentlest, warmest and kindest way possible—as an infant in the womb of a virgin mother. And there in that womb, fully God and fully man, the Good News Himself began the process of removing the barriers between God and man.

Paul asks us in Hebrews today this question: “For if the word spoken through angels was confirmed, and every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation, which having at first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard?” How shall we escape?

This Word of God was given by the voice of an angel, spoken by the Father Himself. And every transgression and disobedience is in Christ receiving that just retribution. The brokenness is being overcome. The wickedness is being punished. The vindication has begun.

How shall we escape, we, who are guilty of so many sins and so weak in our repentance? How shall we escape, we, who have had this word confirmed to us by angels and by the Virgin and by our parents and by our teachers and by our brothers and sisters in Christ and by the saints from all the ages?

This is the answer: We shall escape only if we do not neglect so great a salvation. And how do we not neglect but rather attend to that salvation? This is how we do it: We lay aside all that stands between us and the coming of this Word. We close our ears to all words but the Word Himself. We open our hearts to receive Him Who was received into the womb of the Virgin and Whose presence at the very heart of humanity makes us what we truly are—made in the image of God Himself, made according to that template, which is Christ.

In this holy season, let us not just spend a little more time and effort on what is happening here in this holy place, but let us truly commit ourselves and each other, our whole life unto Christ our God. And death will indeed come to an end, for Christ our life is come among us, and death has no dominion over Him.

To Jesus Christ, Who is the Word spoken by God, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and power, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.