March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation, exactly nine months before Christmas Day, and marks the moment that Jesus Christ was conceived “of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became Man.” The primary importance of this event – which is recorded in St. Luke 1:24-28 – is the salvation of the world, but it also reveals how God sanctifies the world through our work.
The Archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she has been chosen to carry Emmanuel, God-with-us, in her womb. At her reply, “Let it be unto me according to Thy word,” then “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (St. John 1:14).
This exchange defined the Virgin Mary in the early Christian Church, especially in the East.
“If in Western Christianity veneration of Mary was centered upon her perpetual virginity, the heart of Orthodox Christian East’s devotion, contemplation, and joyful delight has always been her Motherhood,” said Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
“The East rejoices that the human role in the divine plan is pivotal,” because it unfolds God’s plan for sanctifying and deifying the world. Fr. Schmemann explained:
The Son of God comes to earth, appears in order to redeem the world, He becomes human to incorporate man into His divine vocation, but humanity takes part in this. If it is understood that Christ’s “co-nature” with us is as a human being and not some phantom or bodiless apparition, that He is one of us and forever united to us through His humanity, then devotion to Mary also becomes understandable, for she is the one who gave Him His human nature, His flesh and blood. She is the one through whom Christ can always call Himself “the Son of Man.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI affirmed in 2008 that “the description ‘Mother of God’” – Eastern Orthodox use the Greek term Theotokos (literally, “The one who gave birth to God”) – “is therefore the fundamental name with which the Community of Believers has always honored the Blessed Virgin.” That title alone, he continued:
clearly explains Mary’s mission in salvation history. All other titles attributed to Our Lady are based on her vocation to be the Mother of the Redeemer, the human creature chosen by God to bring about the plan of salvation, centered on the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word.
The feast of Annunciation shows us the importance of human work in three ways.
First, the Gospel reveals that salvation came about by human agency. Obedience brought life. This is especially captured by the medieval Marian antiphon Ave Maris Stella. Western hymnographers attached great significance to the fact that the first word of the archangel’s greeting, “Ave,” is the Latin name of Eve (“Eva”) backwards. The hymn says: “Thou that didst receive the Ave from Gabriel’s lips: Confirm us in peace, and so let Eva be changed into an Ave of blessing for us.”
This is stronger in the terse Latin: “Mutans Evae nomen” – literally “transforming Eve’s name” through Mary’s consent to the divine plan. (One might even translate it “exchanging” Eve’s name, as one would exchange an unwanted gift for something preferable.) Church Fathers stretching back to at least St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) contrasted the Theotokos’ obedience to Eve’s disobedience. In the Christian imagination, this made her a minor helpmeet to the New Adam, Who recapitulated the human race under His own headship.
Second, the incarnation shows a God united with His creation. Unlike the Deists’ clockmaker, or “the wholly Other,” God becomes a human being with flesh, bones, and sinews. He participates in the proper use of the things His hands have made. This shows that matter is not an evil to be escaped, or an illusion to transcend, but a positive good to be sanctified. It can become a source of life.Third, the incarnation shows that human work plays a role in renewing the world. United to Jesus, our work becomes a channel of our sanctification. Fr. Schmemann continued:
Son of God, Son of Man…God descending and becoming man so that man could become divine, could become partaker of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4), or as the teachers of Church expressed it, “deified.” Precisely here, in this extraordinary revelation of man’s authentic nature and calling, is the source that gratitude and tenderness which cherishes Mary as our link to Christ and, in Him, to God.
The Virgin Mary, the Theotokos and Mater Dei, opened the door to salvation. When we dedicate our deeds to Him – at home, in church, or in the marketplace – they can extend His blessing into the world.
We work in professions and workplaces where the consequences of Eve’s disobedience is all-too evident; as Christ becomes incarnate in our hearts, He empowers us to transform the world one day, one office, one task at a time.
No work is too small or inconsequential for Him to use. As today’s feast shows, the salvation of the entire world can hang on a single word: fiat – “let it be” – or simply, yes. And certainly, no work is large or significant enough to stand without His blessing.
The feast of Annunciation should teach every Christian to begin each day asking God to be incarnate in our hearts, our minds, and our work.
(Photo credit: Tim. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)