The Annunciation to the Theotokos

Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos – March 2014

The feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary is a feast of the Lord and of the Theotokos. It is a feast of the Lord because Christ who was conceived in the womb of the Theotokos. It is a feast of the Theotokos because it refers to the person who aided in the conception and Incarnation of the Word of God, that is, the All Holy Virgin Mary.

Mary the Theotokos has great value and an important position in the Church, precisely because she was the person whom all generations awaited, and she gave human nature to the Word of God. Thus the person of the Theotokos is associated closely with the Person of Christ. Furthermore, the value of the Virgin Mary is not only due to her virtues, but also mainly to the fruit of her womb. For this reason, Theotokology is very closely associated with Christology. When we speak of Christ we cannot ignore her who gave Him flesh. And when we speak of the Virgin Mary, we simultaneously refer to Christ, because from Him she draws Grace and value. This shows clearly in the service of the Akathist, in which the Theotokos is hymned, but always in combination with the fact that she is the mother of Christ: “Rejoice, for you are the throne of the king. Rejoice for you bear Him Who bears all things”.

This connection of Christology and Theotokology shows in the lives of the saints as well. A characteristic mark of the saints, who are the real members of the Body of Christ, is that they love the Virgin Mary. It is impossible for there to be a saint who does not love her.

The Annunciation of the Theotokos is the beginning of all feasts of the Lord. In the dismissal hymn of the feast we sing: “Today is the beginning of our salvation and the revelation of the mystery from the ages…” The content of the feast refers to the Archangel Gabriel’s (the angel associated with all events having to do with the Incarnation of Christ) visit to the Virgin Mary (with God’s command) informing her that the time of the Incarnation of the Word of God had arrived, and that she would become His mother (see Luke 1:26-56).

The word “annunciation” [evangelismos] is comprised of two words, good and message, and denotes the good notification, the good announcement. This refers to the information that was given through the Archangel that the Word of God would be incarnated for man’s salvation. Essentially this is the fulfillment of God’s promise, given after the fall of Adam and Eve (see Gen. 3:15), which is called the proto-evangelion (i.e., the first Gospel). For this reason the information of the Incarnation of the Word of God is the greatest notification in history.

According to Saint Maximos the Confessor, the Gospel of God is the intercession of God and the comforting of men through His incarnate Son. Simultaneously it is the reconciliation of men with the Father, Who gives the unborn theosis as a reward to those who obey Christ. Theosis is called unborn because it is not born but rather is revealed to those who are worthy. Consequently, the theosis that is offered through the incarnate Christ is not a birth, but a revelation of the enhypostatic illumination to those who are worthy of this revelation.

The good announcement, the Gospel, the Annunciation, is a correction of the events which occurred at the beginning of man’s creation, in the Paradise of Eden. There, from a woman the Fall and its results began; here, from a woman all good things began. Thus, the Virgin Mary is the new Eve. There was the sensorial Paradise; here, the Church. There, Adam; here, Christ. There, Eve; here Mary. There, the snake; here, Gabriel. There, the whispering of the serpent to Eve; here the greeting of the angel to Mary (From a hymn by Joseph Vryenios). In this manner the transgression of Adam and Eve was corrected.

The Archangel Gabriel called the Virgin Mary “full of grace.” He told her: “Rejoice, you who are full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28-29). The Virgin Mary is called “full of grace” and is characterized as “blessed” because God is with her.

According to Saint Gregory Palamas and other holy Fathers, the Virgin Mary had already been filled with grace, and was not just filled with grace on the day of the Annunciation. Having remained in the holy Temple, she reached the holy of holies of the spiritual life,theosis, which is firsthand experience of union with God. If the courtyard of the Temple was destined for the proselytes and the main Temple for the priests, then the holy of holies was destined for the high priest. The Virgin Mary’s entry was a sign that she had reached theosis. It is known that in the Christian age, the narthex was appointed for the catechumens and penitants, the main church for the illumined, the members of the Church, and the holy altar is meant for those who had reached theosis.

Thus, the Virgin Mary had reached theosis even before she received the visitation of the Archangel. Toward this goal, she used a special method of knowing God and communing with God: stillness, the hesychastic way, as Saint Gregory Palamas interprets in a wonderful and divinely inspired manner. The Virgin Mary understood that no one can reach God with reasoning, with the senses, with imagination or human glory, but rather only through the nous, the eye of the soul. Thus she put to death all the powers of the soul that came from the senses, and through prayer she activated the nous. In this manner she reached illumination and theosis. And for this reason it was granted to her to become the Mother of Christ, to give her flesh to Christ. She didn’t have simply virtues, but the divinizing Grace of God.

The Virgin Mary had the fullness of God’s Grace, in comparison to other people. Christ, as the Word of God, has in Himself the whole fullness of Grace, but the Virgin Mary received the fullness of Grace from the Grace of her Son. For this reason, in relation to Christ she is lower, since Christ had this Grace by nature, whereas the Virgin Mary had it through participation in Christ. In relation to other saints, however, she is higher.

The Virgin Mary had the fullness of Grace, from the Grace of her Son, prior to the conception, during the conception and after the conception. Prior to the conception this Grace was perfect, during the conception it was more perfect, and after the conception it was altogether perfect, says Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite. In this manner the Virgin Mary was a virgin in body and a virgin in soul.

No human is born delivered of the ancestral sin. The fall of Adam and of Eve and the consequences of this fall were inherited by the whole human race. It was natural that the Virgin Mary would not be delivered from the ancestral sin. The word of the Apostle Paul is clear: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). In this apostolic passage it shows that sin is considered to be a deprivation of the glory of God, and furthermore that no one is delivered from it. Thus, the Virgin Mary was born with the ancestral sin. When, though, was she delivered from it? The answer to this question must be freed from scholastic viewpoints.

To begin with we must say that the ancestral sin was the deprivation of the glory of God, the estrangement from God, the loss of communion with God. This also had physical consequences, however, because corruption and death entered into the bodies of Adam and of Eve. When in the Orthodox Tradition there is talk of inheriting the ancestral sin, this does not mean the inheriting of the guilt of the ancestral sin, but its consequences, which are corruption and death. Just as when the root of a plant dies, the branches and the leaves become ill, so it happened with the fall of Adam. The whole human race descended from tham became ill. The corruption and death which man inherits is the favorable climate for the growth of the passions, and in this manner the intellect of man is darkened.

Precisely for this reason the adoption by Christ through His Incarnation of this mortal and suffering body, without sin, aided in correcting the consequences of Adam’s sin. Theosis existed in the Old Testament as well, just as the illumination of the nous also did, but death had not been abolished; for this reason the God-seeing prophets all went to Hades as did every man. With Christ’s Incarnation and His Resurrection, human nature was deified and thus the possibility was given to each person to be deified. Because with holy Baptism we become members of the deified and resurrected Body of Christ, for this reason we say that through holy Baptism man is delivered from the ancestral sin.

When we apply these things to the case of the Virgin Mary we can understand her relationship with the ancestral sin and her being freed from it. The Virgin Mary was born with the ancestral sin; she had all the consequences of corruption and death in her body. With her entrance into the holy Temple, she reached theosis. This theosis, though, was not enough to deliver her from sin’s consequences, which are corruption and death — precisely because the divine nature had not yet united with the human nature in the Person of God the Word. Thus, at the moment when, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the divine nature was united with human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Virgin Mary first tasted her freedom from the so-called ancestral sin and its consequences. Furthermore, at that moment, what Adam and Eve failed to do with their free personal struggle, finally took place. For this reason, the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation reached a greater state than that of Adam and Eve prior to the fall. She was granted to taste the goal of creation, as we will see in other analyses.

For this reason, for the Virgin Mary, Pentecost did not have to happen, it was not necessary for her to be baptized. What the Apostles experienced on the day of Pentecost, when they became members of Christ’s Body through the Holy Spirit, and what happened to all of us during the mystery of Baptism, occurred for the Virgin Mary on the day of the Annunciation. Then she was delivered from the ancestral sin — not in the sense of deliverance from guilt, but that she obtained theosis in her soul and body, due to her union with Christ.

In these frameworks Saint John of Damascus’ saying that on the day of the Annunciation the Virgin Mary received the Holy Spirit, which cleansed her and gave her power to receive the Word’s divinity, simultaneously a birth-giving power, should be interpreted. That is the Virgin Mary received from the Holy Spirit a cleansing grace, but also a grace receptive and able to give birth to the Word of God as a man.

The response of the Virgin Mary to the information of the archangel that she would be granted to give birth to Christ was expressive: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). Here the obedience of the Virgin Mary to the saying of the archangel shows, but also her obedience to God, for an event that was odd and strange for human logic. In this way her logic is submitted to God’s will.

Some maintain that during that moment all the righteous people of the Old Testament, but also all of humanity awaited with anxiousness to hear the Virgin Mary’s response, fearing that she might refuse and not obey God’s will. They maintain that because every time when man is in such a dilemma, precisely because he has freedom, he can say the yes or no, as occurred in the case of Adam and Eve, the same thing could occur with the Virgin Mary. However it was not possible for the Virgin Mary to refuse. Not because she didn’t have freedom, but because she had real freedom.

Saint John of Damascus makes a distinction between a natural and an opinionated will. One has an opinionated will when he is distinguished by the ignorance of a thing, by the doubt and in the end the incapability of selection. He does not know what is truly right or wrong or best. This refers to a wavering as to what to do. One has a natural will when he is lead in acording to his true nature, without wavering, without ignorance, to the realization of the truth.

So it seems, that the natural will is associated with wanting, whereas the opinionated will with how to want, and furthermore when it is finished with doubts and wavering. Consequently the natural will comprises the perfection of nature, whereas the opinionated will comprises the imperfection of nature, since it presupposes a person who does not have knowledge of the truth, is not certain about what he must decide.

So even though Christ had two wills, due to his two natures, the human and divine nature, nevertheless he had a natural will, from the viewpoint we are studying here — and of course, He did not have an opinionated will. As God He always knew the will of God the Father, and there was no doubt and no wavering in Him. The Saints experience this by grace also. Because the Virgin Mary had reached theosis, for this reason it was impossible for her to reject God’s will and not yield to the incarnation. She had perfect freedom, and her freedom always acted naturally and not unnaturally. We, because we have not reached theosis, have an imperfect freedom, the so-called opinionated will. For this reason we waver as to what to do. Her question, “How shall this be to me, because I know no man” (Luke 1:34), shows humility, the weakness of the human nature, but also the strangeness of the matter, because there were miraculous conceptions in the Old Testament, but not seedless ones.

On the day of Annunciation we have a direct conception of Christ by the power and energy of the All-holy Spirit. In one hymn we sing: “When Gabriel greeted you, ‘Hail O virgin!’ the Master of all became incarnate in you.“. This means that several hours and days for the conception to occur did not intervene, but it occurred precisely at that moment.

The archangel Gabriel told Joseph, the betrothed of the Most Holy Theotokos. “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife. For that which is born in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). The Virgin Mary gave birth to Christ as a human, but the conception was of the Holy Spirit.

Basil the Great interpreting this phrase, “is born of the Holy Spirit,” says that every thing which comes from something else, is denoted by three words. The one is “by creation”, just as the whole of creation was created by God with His energy. The other one is “by birth”, as the Son was born before all ages of the Father. The third is “naturally”, just as energy comes out of every nature, that is brilliance from the sun, and more generally the action from the one doing the action. As regards the conception of Christ in the Holy Spirit the true expression is that in his humanity Christ was conceived with the energy of the Holy Spirit “by creation”, and not by birth or naturally.

Saint John of Damascus teaches that the Son and Word of God made for Himself, from the pure and most clean blood of the Theotokos, a flesh which is alive with a logical and noetic soul — not by seed, but created by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, when we speak of the conception of Christ in the Theotokos’ womb with the power and creative energy of the Holy Spirit, we should not isolate the Holy Spirit from the Holy Trinity. It is known from patristic teaching that the energy of the Trinitarian God is shared among the Persons of the Godhead. The creation of the world and the recreation of man and of the world occurred and occurs with the common energy of the Trinitarian God. Consequently, not only did the Holy Spirit create the body of Christ the Master, but also the Father Himself and the Son, that is the whole Holy Trinity did. The formulation of this truth is that the Father favored the incarnation of His Son, the Son and the Word of God Himself worked His incarnation and the Holy Spirit brought it about.

The conception of Christ in the womb of the Theotokos occurred with silence and secrecy, not with noise and disturbance. No one, neither of the angels nor of men was able to understand at that moment these great things which were performed. The great Prophet David prophesied this event saying: “May he be like rain that falls on a fleece, like showers that water the earth!” (Psalm 71:6). Just as rain that falls on a fleece of wool does not cause noise or any corruption, the same thing occurred also during the annunciation and the conception. Christ with His conception did not cause noise or any corruption in the virginity of the Virgin Mary. For this reason the Virgin Mary was and remained a Virgin before the birth, during the birth and after the birth. These are the three stars, which the iconographer depicts always on the head and the two shoulders of the Virgin Mary.

The union of the divine with the human nature in the hypostasis of the Word, in the womb of the Theotokos, comprises the theosis of the human nature. That is, from the first moment when the divine nature united with the human nature, there is the divinization of the human nature. The saying of Saint John Damascene is characteristic: “At the moment of flesh: at that moment, the flesh of God the Word.” This means that a duration of time did not intervene after the conception for the human nature to be deified, but this happened immediately at the time of the conception.

A consequence of this event is that the Virgin Mary must be called Theotokos, since she gave birth truly to God, whom she bore for nine months in her womb, and not merely a man who had the Grace of God. For this reason the Virgin Mary is called Theotokos, precisely because she conceived Christ in the Holy Spirit.

This must be stressed, because in times of old a great theological controversy occurred as to whether the Virgin Mary should continue to be called Theotokos, or merely Christotokos [birth-giver of Christ] due to the emergence of heretical teachings. In the end, the Third Ecumenical Council finally validated the teaching that the Virgin Mary gave birth to a single Person, the man who is God — and that immediately with the adoption of the human nature there exists its theosis. The heretic Nestorios, using philosophical terms and human pondering, had asserted that the Virgin Mary was a human and for this reason it was impossible for her to give birth to God. The child who was in her, he maintained, was not God, but merely a human; God simply “passed through” the Theotokos. Of course, there was a problem in his theology about the relationship between the two natures of Christ. Nestorios believed that the flesh of Christ was simply joined with the nature of the Godhead. To him, the Word was not the God-man, but was joined to man and dwelt inside him. With such presuppositions he named the Virgin Mary Christotokos and not Theotokos.

However Christ is the God-man, perfect God and perfect man, and the two natures each acted “with the other in communion” in the one Person of the Word. Here it must be underlined that human nature was deified immediately with its union with the divine nature in the hypostasis of the Word, in the womb of the Theotokos. For this reason the Virgin Mary is and is called Theotokos, since she gave birth to God as a man.

The direct theosis of human nature by the divine nature of the Word does not mean that the qualities of human nature are abolished. This shows that the conception and carrying in the womb, but also the birth of Christ occurred by nature and supernaturally. Supernaturally, because it occurred creatively by the All-holy Spirit and not by seed. Naturally, because the carrying in the womb occurred in the manner in which the infant is carried in the womb.

There is however one point which must be underlined. In every infant there are a few stages, until the time for birth comes. To begin with there is the conception, subsequently after a period of time the depiction of the members of his body, afterwards little by little they are developed, and according to the level of his development movement follows. Finally, when it is completed, he comes out of the womb of his mother.

The conception of Christ occurred by the All-Holy Spirit in the womb of the Theotokos creatively and not by seed, because Christ had to undertake the pure nature that Adam had before the transgression. Of course, in order to defeat corruption and death, Christ adopted a mortal flesh, capable of suffering, as Adam’s flesh became after the transgression, but Christ’s flesh was utterly pure and spotless, as it was prior to the transgression. Thus, Christ’s flesh from a viewpoint of purity was as Adam’s body was prior to the transgression — while from a viewpoint of mortality and corruption it was the body of Adam after the transgression.

Precisely this event is very closely associated with the fact that the conception, carrying in the womb and birth of Christ by the Virgin Mary was effortless, without pain or pleasure. So Christ, was conceived, without bodily pleasure, carried in the womb as a babe and was born without travail and without pain. He was conceived seedless for two basic reasons. Firstly, to undertake the pure human nature, and secondly, to be born without corruption and painlessly.

The Virgin Mary as she conceived Christ without pleasure, in the same way held Him for nine months in her womb without toil and without weight. She did not feel weight, despite the fact that the divine infant was developing naturally and had the weight of a developing embryo. Thus the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah was fulfilled: “Behold the Lord is sitting upon a hollow cloud” (Is. 19:1). With the term “hollow cloud” is meant the human flesh, which was so very light that it did not cause any weight and toil to the Virgin Mary during the time of the nine month carrying in the womb.

The seedless and “pleasureless” conception of the Virgin Mary and the effortless carrying in the womb is closely associated with the incorrupt and painless birth of Christ. According to Saint Gregory Nyssa there is a close relationship between pleasure and pain, since every pleasure has pain connected with it. Adam felt pleasure, and pain followed to the whole human race. Thus also now, through Mary’s freedom from pleasure, joy comes to the human race. The birth of Christ did not corrupt or harm the virginity of the Theotokos, precisely as the conception did not occur with pleasure, and the carrying in the womb did not occur with weight and toil. There where the All-holy Spirit acts “the order of nature is overcome”.

The duration of the carrying in the womb of the Virgin Mary is a foreshadowing of the ceaseless communion that the Saints will have in the Kingdom of God.

It is known that the mother who has a child in the womb has a close and organic relationship with him. Contemporary scholars have proven that the infant is influenced not only by the physical state of his mother, but also by her psychological state. And because the divine infant was conceived of the Holy Spirit, but grew up in the natural manner, that is He had a communion with the Virgin Mary’s body, for this reason there exists a close relationship between Christ and the Theotokos. Naturally, we must see this from the viewpoint that the Virgin Mary gives nourishment to Christ, but also Christ gives His Grace and blessing to her. So Christ being carried in the womb did not cease simultaneously being at God’s throne united with His Father and the Holy Spirit.

The human nature was united with the divine nature without alteration, unconfusedly, indivisibly, inseparably, immediately from the moment of conception. This means that first the Virgin Mary tasted the goods of the divine incarnation, theosis. That which the Disciples of Christ tasted during Pentecost, and we during Baptism, at the time of the mystery of the divine Eucharist, when we commune of the Body and Blood of Christ, and that which the Saints will live in the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Virgin Mary lived from the first moment of the conception and carrying in the womb.

Consequently Christ for nine whole months, day and night, nourished with His sanctified blood the Virgin Mary. This is a foreshadowing of the ceaseless divine Communion and of the ceaseless relationship and communion of the Saints with Christ which will occur mainly in the next life. For this reason the Virgin Mary is a foreshadowing of the future age. From this viewpoint she is Paradise.

Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, speaking of the Annunciation of the Theotokos proceeds to a personal and existential approach of this event. Because, it does not suffice for us to celebrate only externally the events of the divine incarnation, but we should approach them existentially and spiritually. For this reason he gathered many passages of Saints in which mainly there is speech about this existential approach.

The saying of the Prophet Isaiah is characteristic “we were with child, we writhed, we have given birth. We have brought forth a spirit of salvation upon the earth” (Is. 26: 18). According to the interpretation of the holy Fathers the seed is the word of God and the nous is the womb and the heart of man. Through faith the word of God is sown in the heart of man and makes it pregnant with the fear of God. This is the fear that man not remain far from God. Through this fear the struggle for cleansing the heart and the obtaining of virtues begins, which resembles a pain, childbearing pains. In this manner the spirit of salvation is born, which is theosis and sanctification.

The forming of Christ in us happens with spiritual pains. The Apostle Paul says: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!” Gal. 4:19). Travails are the ascetic struggle, and formation is theosis and sanctification.

According to the holy Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Niketas Stethatos, etc.) what happened physically in the Virgin Mary, this happens spiritually to each one whose soul is virginal, that is, is cleansed of the passions. Christ, who was born once in the flesh, wants always to be born in the spirit to those who wish, and thus He becomes a babe, forming Himself in them through the virtues.

The spiritual conception and birth becomes understood from the fact that the flow of hot blood stops — that is, the desires to commit sin cease, passions are no longer active in man, man hates sin and constantly wants to do God’s will. This conception and birth is obtained by putting into action the divine commandments, mainly with the return of the nous into the heart and with unceasing prayer. Then man becomes a temple of the All-Holy Spirit.

The Annunciation of the Theotokos is an annunciation of the human race, an announcement that the Son and Word of God has become incarnate. This universal feast must lead to a personal feast, in a personal annunciation. We must accept the preludes of our salvation, which is the greatest notification in our life.

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