Hebrews 2:11-18; Luke 1:24-38
Today we celebrate the very best example of how to live faithfully as a human being before God with the feast of the Annunciation. When the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to become the Theotokos, she freely accepted this extraordinary calling when she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” When she offered herself to become the Living Temple of God, she played a crucial role in how the Savior would “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” In opening her life without reservation to Christ, she made it possible for Him to “share in flesh and blood” and participate in our humanity so “that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”
By conventional human standards, this teenage girl had no power or prominence at all. No one in first-century Palestine would have been inclined to look to her as having a role in delivering them from anything. But through her courage in accepting a calling that would impact every dimension of her life in ways that she could not possibly have fully understood, the Theotokos became a fierce warrior against evil because she broke the cycle of disobedience that went back to the rebellion of our first parents. They chose satisfying their own self-centered desires over obeying the Lord and becoming more like Him in holiness. She chose, instead, to say “yes” without reservation to the point of sharing her own flesh and blood with the Son of God, and of loving and serving Him throughout His earthly life, even as He hung on the Cross. She is the New Eve through whom the Second Adam became one of us for our salvation.
In order for the Savior to be fully divine and fully human, He had to be born of a woman. In order for Him to be the Great High Priest Who offered Himself fully on the Cross to conquer the power of death, the Messiah “had to be made like His brethren in every respect.” The Theotokos’ offering of herself in free obedience made it possible for Him to do that. Here we encounter the great mystery of divine-human cooperation or synergy, for God always respects our freedom as unique persons in responding to His will. God did not choose the Virgin Mary randomly, but prepared for her across the generations of the Hebrew people, culminating in the aged, barren couple of Joachim and Anna. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, they did not conceive simply by their own youthful physical abilities, but after painful decades of childlessness due to the miraculous blessing of the Lord. John the Baptist was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the same way.
These elderly parents of newborns bear witness that something very different from birth into a world dominated by the fear of death has arrived. Now a new age of the fulfillment of God’s promises has dawned. It is fulfilled through a young girl’s amazing obedience, as the Savior becomes an unborn Child in her womb. She conceived and gave birth without passion, without a husband, and in a way that preserved her virginity. In the Theotokos’ astounding offering of herself to the Lord, the brokenness and corruption of our humanity is unwound and undone. This New Eve does not choose the satisfaction of her own desires over obedience to God, but opens every dimension of her being to share in His life. Through her, the New Adam is born Who heals all the corruption of the first.
As we celebrate the Annunciation this year only one week before Palm Sunday, the connection between the Lord’s Self-offering and hers is especially clear. Remember, however, that neither our Savior nor the Theotokos is a conventional hero. Instead of destroying His enemies through brute force, the Lord submitted to the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion, death, burial in a tomb, and descent to Hades in order to deliver us from captivity to fear of the grave and to bring us into the joy of eternal life. He does not inflict suffering upon others, but takes it upon Himself purely for our sake. The Theotokos was a young virgin, unmarried and of no particular importance in her society. Her unwed pregnancy was scandalous and certainly not a path to a conventional life. Eventually, she saw her Son and God condemned as a blasphemer and a traitor, and then nailed to the Cross. Her purity and blessedness were surely hidden from the world and known only to those who had the eyes to see her Son as the Savior, not in spite of His Passion, but because of it.
After today, there is one week of Lent left followed by Holy Week. Even as we plan how to adjust our schedules in order to enter as fully as possible into the great mystery of our salvation through the services of the Church, we must use the spiritual disciplines of the season to become more like the Theotokos in her complete obedience and receptivity to the Lord. The Archangel announced her unique calling to which she said “yes.” Through her, the Son of God united Himself with humanity. Our calling, then, is to become like her in hearing and responding to God’s calling as we unite ourselves personally with Him.
If we believe the good news of this feast, then we may shut off no part of our lives from communion with Christ in holiness. His becoming the God-Man calls us to follow the example of the Theotokos in receiving Him in a fashion that transforms every dimension of our life into a sign of His salvation. That is a tall order that we probably cannot image we would ever fulfill. We likely cannot even begin to understand how that could be possible for people like us who are gravely weakened by our sins and the slaves of our self-centered desires.
By this point in Lent, we should have a clearer sense of how hard it is to open our lives to Christ through prayer, fasting, generosity, forgiveness, and repentance. We undertake these practices so poorly and feebly, often gaining a stronger sense of our weakness than of peace, blessedness, and joy. If we have embraced the season with integrity so far, Lent will have opened our eyes a bit to the true state of our souls; and if we are honest, there is much there that we do not like to see. Though that may seem like bad news, it is actually exactly what we need. For if we are to grow in personal union with the Lord, we have to get over any self-righteous illusions that would drown out the message we need to hear. If we are to learn to say “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” we must do so as the particular people we truly are. If we try to relate to God with some kind of imaginary holiness or religiosity, we will do more harm than good to our souls. We may be able to fool ourselves, but we can never fool God.
Through the Theotokos’s response to the message of the Archangel, the Savior became one of us, uniting divinity and humanity in His own Person. By His grace, He calls and enables each of us to find the healing of our souls by sharing in His blessed life. As the Lenten journey continues with all its struggles, we have the opportunity to gain the spiritual strength to receive Him more fully as we grow into the unique persons He created us to be in His image and likeness. Let us look to the Theotokos as our hero, our great example, of what happens when a humble, obedient person says “yes” to God from the depths of her soul. There is no way other than becoming more like her to open ourselves to the victory over the fear of death that her Son accomplished through His Cross and glorious resurrection on the third day.