The Annunciation and the Absence of God

Annunciation of the Theotokos, 2012

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

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was the Orthodox Church of Russia’s bishop in London from 1957 to 2003, in the opening paragraphs of his book Beginning to Pray, directly addresses what is perhaps the most central struggle and disappointment of anyone who has ever even begun to contemplate whether there is a God or gods—namely, the absence of God. His book is about what its title suggests, beginning to pray, and he writes the following:

At the outset there is, then, one very important problem: the situation of one for whom God seems to be absent. This is what I would like to speak about now. Obviously I am not speaking of a real absence—God is never really absent—but of the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. We turn in all directions and He is not to be found (pp. 25-26).

Is this not so for each of us who have ever wondered whether there is indeed a God? Such a question comes into the hearts even of those who have believed for their whole lives that God is real and that He loves us. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, or perhaps in the midst of some nightmare of suffering that seems to have no meaning, as Metropolitan Anthony says, “We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply.”

In some ways, this sense of God’s absence, that we are missing Him—which is not quite the same as simply having no sense of His presence—is a peculiarly modern problem. You see, as one looks at the history of mankind on this Earth, there is hardly a question to anyone almost anywhere at any time that there is some God or gods, “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Gods and demons and sprites and elves and faeries and spirits—all of these things were quite real to our forebears. They knew for certain not merely that they “believed in” such things, but that they had real evidence for their existence, that they interacted with them, that they were a normal, everyday part of life.

I mention all this because our thoughts turn today to one of the greatest of the feasts of the Christian year, the Annunciation—that moment when the invisible, immaterial God becomes incarnate as a human in the womb of the Virgin Mary, at the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel and which we confess in our Creed. So why is former generations’ sense of the reality of the divine relevant to this feast? It is because the world into which God chose to become incarnate was not one that didn’t think He was “out there.”

The Jewish context of Jesus’ conception was one that very much believed that there was a God. Likewise, even the intellectuals among the Greeks and Romans who surrounded the Jews had basically settled on monotheism by then, despite the continuance of polytheism in the broader culture. But what they all had in common was the idea that God was “above” us, that He was “beyond” this world, that the created order was something too low, too dirty and unworthy of the divine presence.

From this image of the ancient world, we can see that, even if Jesus was not born into a world of atheists and skeptics, He was nevertheless conceived at a time when the idea of God being conceived was utterly unthinkable. What happens at the Annunciation was utter foolishness to both the Jew and the Greek. For the Jew, God would never become a man, and for the Greek and other Gentiles, God would not only not become a man, He certainly wouldn’t become a Jewish man! In the eyes of the citizens of Rome, the Jews were a subjugated people, not remotely worthy of such a divine manifestation.

But nevertheless, the true revolution began at that moment, the only real revolution that this world has ever seen. And if the coming of God as a material being into this world was an unbelievable and shocking claim to the first century, it is perhaps all the more shocking now. The revolution continues, because in our own time, our sense of things like metaphysics and religion and philosophy have all simply expanded upon that sense present in the first century. If, for them, God was forever apart from this material world, properly high in His Heaven, then for us, God has left this material world, never to return—if He was ever here in the first place.

Whatever the case, whatever our sense of separation and alienation from God, the feast of the Annunciation has arrived once again, for the unthinkable has happened: God has become man. He was and remains incarnate, a term that has its origins in the Latin word for “meat.” God became meat; He became flesh. He became visible and material—touchable. The separation is over.

In our loss and disappointment and separation, God Himself chose to overcome the divide between us so that we might encounter Him. The Greek word for this feast is Evangelismos, literally meaning the giving of the good news, closely related to Evangelion, the word for “the Gospel.” And yet, somehow, even 2,000 years after the proclamation of this good news began, people still remain separated from God. Why is this?

If you ever happen to be present at mealtime at my house, you may hear the voices of small people making various requests, whether it is for papa’s doughnut, to be released from the high chair, to be exempted from what everyone else is eating, and so forth. Much like your home, no doubt, whether and how those requests are answered depends very much on the manner in which the request is made. The same holds true for so much in life—if we want something, we have to know how to ask for it or perhaps how to look for it. The same is very much true for the presence of God Almighty. We cannot simply turn around in a circle, announce that we have not seen God, and thus declare Him not to exist.

As he continues his book Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony addresses this question, as well. So often, when we desire for God to make an appearance, it is because we want something from Him. We usually have little sense of developing an actual mutual relationship when we lay out our expectations of God. We may ask respectfully, but if all we ever do with God is to make claims on His providence, are we really seeking to overcome that separation, that absence?

We may complain that God does not answer our prayers, that He does not come running when we call, but, as Metropolitan Anthony writes,

If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is (p. 26).

The Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the universe Himself, has stepped into our world, our time, onto our planet, into our humanity, by being conceived of the Holy Spirit all those many centuries ago. He entered into human experience in that most intimate, secret and sacred of human places—the womb of a virgin. That is the kind of closeness and intimacy that He desires with us.

But we must also remember that while God is both giving and faithful (not to mention, relentless!), He is also free. He is free not to show up when we call. The gift that He offers us is not really about merely “going to Heaven when we die” or even about doing helpful stuff for us in this life, like curing diseases or easing our financial problems. Rather, what He offers is Himself. That is how He defined eternal life, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Metropolitan Anthony puts it this way: “…we should be aware that He cannot come to us [when] we are not there to receive Him. We want something from Him, not Him at all. Is that a relationship? Do we behave that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love? Is this true with regard to the Lord?” (p. 29).

This is the Annunciation. God has come to you by becoming human like you, and He has come to you precisely for you, not for anything He can get from you. That is how you know His love is true. He needs nothing from you. He is here because it’s you. Are you here because it’s Him?

To the incarnate Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

4 comments:

  1. Emmanuel, God is with us! Yet, even we Christians must regularly remind ourselves that Christ was fully human and that He took His humanity with Him when He ascended to His Father.

  2. I love that little book on prayer by Met. Anthony! It is one of the most helpful and to the point little books I have ever read on what real communion with God in prayer means in practical terms. (In a way, it seems to me Met. Anthony had a talent for communicating these profound realities of the faith in very down-to-earth ways similar to that of C.S. Lewis.’ Do you happen to know if they ever met one another?) You have wonderfully woven his thoughts in with your post.

    “This is the Annunciation. God has come to you by becoming a human person like you, and He has come to you precisely for you, not for anything He can get from you. That is how you know His love is true. He needs nothing from you. He is here because it’s you. Are you here because it’s Him?”

    How good it is to be reminded of this truth–and often. Well said. Thanks.

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