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March 25, 2020

On the Annunciation of our Exceedingly Pure Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary (St. Gregory Palamas)

Homily 14

On the Annunciation of our Exceedingly Pure Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary

By St. Gregory Palamas

1. When the prophet and psalmist was enumerating the different aspects of creation and observing God’s wisdom in them all, he was filled with amazement and cried out while writing, ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom have you made them all’ (Ps. 104:24). Now that I am attempting, if I can, to tell you about the manifestation in the flesh of the Word who made all things, what fitting word of praise will I find? If all things that exist inspire wonder, and their coming out of non-being into being is something divine and greatly to be hymned, how much more amazing, divine and demanding of our praises is it for a being to become god, and not just god, but the God who truly is? Especially as it was our nature which was neither able nor willing to preserve the image in which it was made, and had therefore been rightly banished to the lower parts of the earth. That our nature should become like God, and that through it we should receive the gift of returning to what is better, is a mystery so great and divine, so ineffable and beyond understanding, that it remained absolutely unrecognized by holy angels and men, and even by prophets, although they had spiritual vision, and was hidden throughout the ages. But why am I speaking about the time before it was accomplished? Even now it has happened, how it happened, although not the fact that it has, remains a mystery, believed not known, worshiped not investigated, and only believed and worshipped through the Spirit. “No man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3), and the Apostle tells us that it is through the Spirit that we worship and pray (Rom. 8:26).

2. The event which we celebrate today clearly proves that this mystery is beyond the understanding not only of men but of Angels and even Archangels. The Archangel brought the Good Tidings to the Virgin that she would conceive (Luke 1:26-38). But when she sought to find out the way it would happen and ask him, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man" (Luke 1:34), the Archangel was completely unable to explain how. He took refuge in God, saying, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee" (Luke 1:35). It was as if someone had asked Moses, "How was man formed out of the ground? How were bones, nerves and flesh made out of dust, or the sense out of what is insensate? Or how was another human being created from Adam's rib? How was the bone stretched out, divided up, joined and fastened together? How were the internal organs, the various juices and everything else formed from a bone?" If someone had asked these questions of Moses all he would have said was that it was God who took dust from the ground and formed Adam, and took of Adam’s ribs and made Eve. He would have said who the Creator was, but not the way in which these things were done. In the same way, Gabriel said that the Holy Spirit and the power of the Highest would bring about the birth without seed, but he did not say how. He went on to mention that Elizabeth, who was barren, had conceived in her old age, and all he could say was that with God nothing was impossible (Luke 1:35-37). So how could he explain how she was to conceive and bear a child in virginity?

3. Nevertheless, the Archangel's words to the Virgin did contain something more, a reference to a greater mystery. "The Holy Spirit", he said, "shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee" (Luke 1:35). Why was this? Because the child to be born was not to be called a prophet or simply a man, like Adam, but the Son of the Highest, Savior, Deliverer of the human race and eternal King. When stones fall away from the peak of a mountain and go right down to the foot, many overhanging crags are left in their place. In the same way, when in paradise we fell away from the divine commandment and the blessed and godly way of life, and were brought down as far as Hades, many evils resulted. Not only did the ground yield visible thorns and thistles in accordance with the curse upon our forefather, but we, to an even greater extent, were sown with the thorns of all sorts of evil passions and with sin’s dreadful thistles. Our race did not receive just that sorrow allotted to our First Mother by the curse which condemned her to bear children in sorrow (Gen. 3:16), but almost all our life became pain and sorrow.

4. However, God Who made us looked lovingly down on us in His mercy. He bowed the heavens and came down. Having taken our nature upon Him from the Holy Virgin, He renewed and restored it. Or rather, He led it up to divine and heavenly heights. Wishing to achieve this, to bring to fulfillment on this day His pre-eternal counsel, He sent the archangel Gabriel, as Luke the Evangelist tell us, "to Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary" (Luke 1:26-27).

5. God sent the archangel to a virgin and made her, who continued a virgin, His mother by means of a salutation alone. If He had been conceived from seed, He would not have been a new man, nor sinless, nor the Savior of sinners. The flesh's impulse to reproduce is not subject to our minds, which God has appointed to govern us, and is not entirely without sin. That is why David said, "I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 51:5). So if the conception of God had been from seed, He would not have been a new man, nor the author of new life which will never grow old. If He were from the old stock and inherited its sin, He would not have been able to bear within Himself the fullness of the incorruptible Godhead or to make His flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification, able to wash away even the defilement of our First Parents by its abundant power, and sufficient to sanctify all who came after them. That is why neither an Angel nor a man came to save us, but the Lord Himself, who was conceived and took flesh in the womb of a virgin, while remaining unchanged as God.

6. It was necessary for the Virgin to have a witness to the conception without seed, and a helper in those events which were to be accomplished with the divine dispensation. What were these? The journey to Bethlehem, where the birth took place (Luke 2:1-7), proclaimed and glorified by the heavenly angels (Luke 2:8-14). The entry into the Temple, where Symeon and Anna bore witness thatthe infant was the Lord of life and death (Luke 2:22-38). The flight into Egypt to escape Herod, and the return from Egypt in accordance with the holy prophecies (Matt. 2:13-21, Hos. 11:1, cf. Exod. 4:19), and all the other events which we cannot now relate. On account of these, Joseph was taken as her betrothed, and the angel was sent "to a virgin espused to a man whose name was Joseph" (Luke 1:26-27). You should understand the reference to being "of the house and lineage of David" as applying to them both (Luke 2:4; cf. 1:27). For both the Virgin and Joseph traced their families back to David.

7. "And the virgin's name", it says, "was Mary" (Luke 1:27), which means "Lady". This shows the Virgin's dignity, how certain was her virginity and set apart was her life, exact in every respect and completely blameless. She properly bores the name of Virgin, and possessed to the full all the attributes of purity. She was a virgin in both body and soul, and kept all the powers of her soul and her bodily senses far above any defilement. This she did authoritatively, steadfastly, decisively and altogether inviolably at all times, as a closed gate preserves the treasures within, and a sealed book keeps hidden from sight what is written inside. The Scriptures say of her, "This is the sealed book" (cf. Rev. 5:1-6:1, Dan. 12:4) and "this gate shall be shut, and no man shall enter in by it" (Ezek. 44:2).

8. The Virgin is also duly called “Lady” in another sense, as she has the mastery of all things, having divinely conceived and borne in virginity the Master of all by His nature. Yet she is the Lady not just because she is free from servitude and a partaker of divine power, but because she is the fount and root of the freedom of the human race, especially after the ineffable and joyful birth. A married woman is ruled over rather than being a lady, especially after sorrowful and painful childbirth, in accordance with the curse of Eve: “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16). Freeing the human race, the Virgin Mother received through the angel joy and blessing instead of this curse. "And the angel came into her," it says, "and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women" (Luke 1:28). The archangel was not foretelling the future by saying “The Lord is with thee,” but was declaring what he saw happening invisibly at that time. Perceiving that divine and human gifts of grace were to be found in Mary, and that she was adorned with all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, he truly proclaimed her full of grace. He saw that she had already received to dwell within her the One in whom are all these treasures of grace. He saw in advance the painless pregnancy and the birth without labor, and announced to her that she should rejoice, and affirmed that she alone was rightly blessed and glorified among women. Even if other women may be extolled, no other can be magnified with the surpassing glory of the Virgin Mother of God.

9. When the Virgin saw the Archangel she was afraid lest he be a deceitful messenger beguiling unwary women like Eve, and she did not accept his greeting unquestioningly. As she did not yet clearly perceive the bond with God which the Archangel was announcing to her, "she was troubled", it says, "at his saying". She was utterly determined to hold fast to her virginity, "and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be" (St. Luke 1:29). So the Archangel dispelled the godly fear of the Virgin full of grace by telling her, "Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God" (St. Luke 1:30). What favour? "That grace which is only possible for Him Who can do the impossible, and which has been in thy womb" (Luke 1:31). "When you hear about conception", he told her, "do not suppose that there will be any deviation from virginity. You must not be anxious or troubled on that account". For these words, "Behold, thou shalt conceive", spoken to her who is a virgin, show that the conception is to accompany virginity.

10. "Behold, thou shalt conceive", he said, "and bring forth a son" (Luke 1:31). Continuing as you are now with your virginity inviolate, you shall conceive a child and bear a son of the Highest. Isaiah foresaw this many years before the prophesied, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son" (Isaiah 7:14), and "I went unto the prophetess" (Isaiah 8:3). In what way did the prophet go to the prophetess? In the same way as the Archangel now came to her. What the Archangel now saw, the prophet foresaw and foretold. That the Virgin was a prophetess with the gift of prophecy, is proved to all by her hymn to God in the Gospel (Luke 1:46-55).

11. It says that Isaiah went to the prophetess, wholly in the spirit of prophecy, and she conceived. Before the pain of labour arrived, she fled and bore a male child (Isa. 8:3-4). The archangel now told the Virgin, "Thou shalt bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus" - which means "Saviour" - "He shall be great" (Luke 1:31). Again, Isaiah's words were, "wonderful, counsellor, mighty one, governor, prince of peace, father of the age to come" (Isa.9:6 Lxx). In harmony with this, the archangel now said, "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest" (Luke 1:32). (Why did he say, "He shall be," and, "shall be called," and not, "He is great and is the Son of the Highest"? Because he was referring to the humanity of Christ). The archangel disclosed at the same time that He would be known to all and proclaimed by all to be great and the Son of the Highest, so that later Paul could say, "God was manifest in the flesh, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world" (1 Tim. 3:16). The archangel continued, "The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:32-33). He whose kingdom is eternal and without end is God. But the child to be born also had David as His father, therefore He was also man. he was both God and man, Son of man and Son of God. As man He received the inalienable kingdom from God the Father, as Daniel saw and announced beforehand: "I beheld till the thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of days did sit, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, which shall not be taken by any other king (Dan. 7:9; 7:13-14 Lxx).

12. He was to sit upon the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob. Jacob was the patriarch of all godfearing people, whereas David was the first to prefigure Christ by reigning in the fear of God and in a way pleasing to Him. Christ brought together patriarchate and kingship into one heavenly and earthly dominion. As soon as the highly favored Virgin heard those extraordinary divine words addressed to her by the Archangel, "The Lord is with thee" (Luke 1:28), and, "Behold, thou shalt conceive, and bring forth a son, the Son of the Highest Who shall reign forever" (Luke 1:31-33), she replied, "How shall this be unto me, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34). "Although you bring spiritual tidings far above the passions of the flesh, you speak to me of conception in the womb, being with Christ and childbirth, and you emphasize the mention of conception by adding the word "Behold." "How shall this be unto me", she said, "seeing I know not a man?"

13. The Virgin did not say this because she disbelieved, but because she wanted to find out as much as possible about the matter. Therefore the Archangels told her, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). "You are holy", he says, "and full of grace, O Virgin." However, the Holy Spirit shall again come upon you, preparing and completing the work of God within you by the bestowal of a higher sanctification. The power of the Highest shall overshadow you, to strengthen you, and by overshadowing you and uniting you with itself, shall form the humanity of the one to be born of you, that He may be holy, the Son of God and the power of the Highest in the shape of a man. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth, who has been barren all her life, is now mysteriously with child in her old age, by the will of God, for with God nothing shall be impossible."

14. How did the highly favoured Virgin, with her unrivalled and holy understanding, respond to these words? She ran to God and reached out to Him in prayer, saying to the Archangel, "If, as you tell me, the Holy Spirit shall come upon me, purifying my nature still further and strengthening me to receive the unborn Savior, if the power of the Highest shall overshadow me, forming Him Who is in the form of God as man within me and bringing about a birth without seed; if the Holy Child which shall be born is to be the Son of God and God and the Everlasting King, since with God nothing is impossible", "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word" (St. Luke 1:38). And the Angel departed from her, leaving the Maker of all united with a body within her womb. By means of this union, which was the object of his ministry, he had procured salvation for the world. Isaiah clearly revealed all this beforehand by what he was so blessed as to be counted worthy to experience. He did not see the seraphim take the live coal directly off the heavenly, spiritual altar. The seraph took it with tongs, and it was by means of these that he touched the prophet's lips to purify him (Is. 6:5-7). The tongs were the same as the burning bush which was not consumed by the fire, in that great vision seen by Moses (Exod. 3:2-6).

15. Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs, She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an Archangel ministered at the conception, and though her the Bearer of the sins of the world was united with the human race, purifying us thoroughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him Who cannot be contained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after, and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the Apostles, the support of the martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope stored up for us in heaven.

16. To which may we all attain by her prayers for us, to the glory of Him Who was begotten of the Father before all ages, and, in these last times, became incarnate of her, even Jesus Christ our Lord. To Whom belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Saint Gregory Palamas The Homilies, Mount Thabor Publishing, pp. 100-107.