• Gospel reading
  • In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! The 25th of March is always the Feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos. And this major Feast of the Church always falls during Great Lent. But this year, we have the special joy of remembering the very beginning of our Lord and Saviour’s life on this earth on a Sunday morning. The fifth Sunday of Great Lent is also given to the memory of our Mother among the Saints Mary of Egypt, whose life we heard at the Great Canon on Wednesday evening. But this morning I’d like us to focus, for a moment, on the Feast of our Lord and of His Most Holy Mother. And especially to learn, and be encouraged, by the example of the Mother of God. In the Orthodox Church, we have a great love for the Theotokos. And for good reason. She is chosen out of all the women who ever lived on the face the earth, to be the vessel through which God comes into the world. This isn’t a random choice. God doesn’t just decide that this 13-year old girl will be the Mother of the Messiah. This decision is made before the foundation of the world. In His foreknowledge, God knows that the daughter of Joachim and Anne will live a life of total dedication to His will, and she’ll be perfectly prepared to be the receptacle for the Creator of the Universe. As human beings, we’re all created to do what the Virgin Mary does—to live perfect lives in the sight of our God.
    To begin speaking of the Theotokos, you have to begin with her parents. Joachim and Anne were a couple dedicated to the Lord. But Anne was barren; and so the couple spent much time in prayer that they would be able to conceive and bear a child. The Fathers stress that the parents have a crucial role in the shaping of their children—from the time of her conception the Theotokos is surrounded by prayer and lives of purity and devotion to God. In thanks for the gift of a daughter, Joachim and Anne take the Theotokos to the Temple when she is but a small child, and leave her there as a gift to God. We see this even in the Scriptures, most notably with Samuel, whose parents promise that they will dedicate their child to God if God will end the barrenness of Hannah. And so the Mother of God is taken at a very tender age to live in the Temple. There were other girls living in the Temple; her presence there was not a unique occurrence. It wasn’t unheard of for parents to dedicate their children to God and take them to live in the Temple. So there were other young girls living in the Temple, as well. Doing various chores and duties to help in the upkeep of the house of God. The difference between all those other girls and this little girl named Mary is that while in the Temple Mary gave herself totally to prayer and to seeking God. Instead of participating in the various games the girls might play, she spent her time in silence, in prayer and in fasting. The Tradition gives us many details of her life in the Temple, but those details really don’t matter for us this morning. What we have to understand is that by synergy, by cooperating totally with the will of God for her life, the young girl Mary grew up to be a woman who knew no sin. The Tradition, from the most ancient sources, assures us that the Mother of God was completely without sin. This is a concept very difficult for us to imagine, but we know that we were created to live without sin, and we know that God’s will for us is to live without sin, it’s just not something we’re used to seeing or hearing about very often. But we also know that the Theotokos, in her prayers, asked that she might be the handmaiden of the woman who would give birth to the Messiah. She was very sensitive to the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and her desire, just like the desire of the Righteous Symeon and the Prophetess Anna, was to see the Messiah. But in her humility, she asked to be the handmaiden of the mother of the Messiah, rather than the Mother herself. And now we can understand on a deeper level her conversation with the Archangel Gabriel. He calls her “highly favored,” or “full of grace,” and tells her that she is “blessed among women.” She is the most graced person to have ever lived, because she has been chosen to be the Mother of God in the flesh. The Mother of the Christ must be pure; for the first time in human history God has a pure vessel. A pure vessel that is willing. But her astonishment is not only from the encounter with an angel, but that God would choose her to be the Mother of the Messiah. In her humility, she can’t imagine that she could be worthy of this calling. And we see from her final response, that she has the ability to reject this call. She responds to Gabriel—“Let it be unto me according to your word.” She willingly, and with utmost humility, makes herself available for God, and in this moment she conceives the Messiah in her womb. And we hear, in this encounter, the prophecy of the child who will be born. He will be called “the Son of the Highest,” the Son of God. And He will sit on David’s throne, and of His kingdom there will be no end. We know already, at this early point in the Gospels, that the Messiah will be divine, the very Son of God. And we see in the response of the Theotokos to God throughout her life what we are to do with our lives as Christians. As followers of this Messiah. As those who know the saving work of the Son who is conceived today in the womb of the Virgin.
    Mary does, by the grace of God, what no other person had been able to do—she gives herself over so completely to the love of God that she isn’t able to violate even one of His Holy Laws. She’s not just a “law keeper”—her love for her God won’t allow her to sin. St. Silouan says that the Saints would rather die than transgress even one law of God. And the Theotokos has this love from the time of her childhood. All generations praise and call her blessed, because she is for us the example of our salvation. Christ is our salvation, and His Holy Mother is our example. The Fathers of the Church tell us that the Theotokos is chosen because of her total purity—a virgin not only in body but also in mind. A foreigner to all types of sin. She fulfills the law of the Old Covenant, and she is chosen to usher in the era of the New Covenant. In our Orthodox Christian Tradition, we rightly honor the Theotokos as the Mother of God, as the first fruit of salvation and the resurrection. In continuity with the Lukan account of the Annunciation, we praise her as being surrounded by divine grace and shining with holiness. But she is honored, as are all the Saints, in view of her relationship with God. Nothing we offer as human beings is worthy of God. Nothing we offer is worthy of praise. The Theotokos is worthy of our praise because God made her worthy. And God chose to make her worthy as a response of His love to her love. Divine action meeting human will in perhaps the most important act of synergy in all of human history. After Christ, she is the ultimate Christian example. God reveals through her what happens when we give ourselves wholly to the will and the love of God. We become “theotokos”—we become the bearers of God in our flesh. The union with Christ known by His Holy Mother is made ours as well. Christ dwells within us, and we give birth to the light of His presence to the world around us. By His grace we are deified, and are made partakers in the life of the Holy Trinity. And so the Church always keeps before our eyes the image of the Virgin Mary. She is the proof, so to speak, of God’s desire for man’s salvation, and of the reality that man can be saved. We have no excuse to not live up to the high call that God has placed on our lives. We have for our support the grace of Holy Baptism, we have the prayers of the faithful and the Saints, and we have the example of the chosen ones of God, and foremost among them, the Theotokos. During this Holy Season of Lent we have the opportunity to set our lives on the straight and narrow way that leads to life eternal. To embrace and to live this life of the Kingdom of God even now. The Kingdom of God, Christ said, is within you. And if it’s not within us on this earth, it won’t be in us after. So, let’s live the words of St. Herman of Alaska—“From this day, from this hour, from this very moment, let us serve the Lord.” Through the prayers of Thy Mother, the most pure and holy Theotokos, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and, save us. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!