[I gave this homily on the feast in 2009. It is slightly edited because of the time of the liturgical year in which this feast is being celebrated.]
The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year, since it gives us the opportunity to celebrate an incomprehensible and marvelous mystery that is at the heart of our salvation: the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Savior. Yet there’s also a kind of bittersweet dimension to it, since it almost always occurs during Lent or Holy Week. So the liturgical structure does not reflect quite the same exuberance as do other major feasts, for we celebrate the Liturgy in conjunction with Vespers, and there are even some Lenten texts prescribed in some of the services of the day. Perhaps this adds to the poignancy of Mary’s “let it be done to me,” because her surrender to the will of God falls under the shadow of the Cross.
Let us try to understand something of the mystery of this feast, and what the Church is trying to communicate to us by means of it. First of all, we see in the Gospel text (Lk 1:24-38) that the evangelist takes pains to insist that Mary was a virgin, and therefore that Christ was conceived in her directly from God, without any human mediation. Ordinarily, when female characters are introduced in stories, even biblical ones, the delicate issue of virginity is not the very first one mentioned. But in today’s Gospel it is. We learn about that even before we learn her name! “The angel Gabriel was sent by God… to a virgin.” And when we do learn her name, her virginity is mentioned again: “the virgin’s name was Mary.” Once the angel explains what God is planning to do in her, she herself states that she is a virgin—and perhaps implies that she had intended to remain one. If she had fully intended to have a normal marriage, she wouldn’t have thought twice about the angel’s words, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” If she was about to get married, of course she would very likely conceive and bear children as countless other women have done. But she asked the angel how this was supposed to happen, since she did not know man. This would have been a nonsensical question if she had fully expected to know man on her wedding night!
But whatever Mary’s plans for her own life may have been up to that point, what most concerns the evangelist, and us, is what the angel next said: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” This is the astounding news of the Incarnation of God. There have been great annunciations in the Old Testament concerning the births of prophets or kings. These all prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah, but Jesus is greater still than the common understanding of the Messiah, for even if people could expect that the Messiah’s conception would have happened by some intervention of God, like that of the conception of Isaac or John the Baptizer, no one ever thought that a husband would have been totally excluded from the equation! The Incarnation is more than a providential intervention in human affairs. God Himself was about to enter into human life and history in a wholly unprecedented, undreamed-of manner. He wasn’t merely going to pour his blessings upon the favored child, be it king or prophet. He Himself would become that Child and thereby save his people from their sins.
This is what the Gospel has established by repeatedly making it clear that she was a virgin and that she was in fact to be impregnated solely by the power of God. There have been heroes and saviors of the people of God down through the ages, but they all had their human failings, and they all died, never to be heard from again. Their wisdom and their deeds were remembered, but their power to deliver the people of God from their afflictions died with them. With the arrival of the Angel Gabriel, the fullness of time had come, but another merely human hero would not be adequate to the task at hand, which was not a temporal liberation, but a radical, permanent overthrowing of the power of sin and death—something only God could accomplish. And so God came, through the human body and the personal consent of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Epistle for this feast (Heb. 2:11-18) tells us something about why the Son of God became man. He partook of human nature, it says, “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” So Jesus was born as a man so that He could die—because as the eternal Word of God, Pure Spirit, He could not die—and in dying he would rob death and the devil of their power and free all those held in their grip. For ever since Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, mankind has lived in the shadow of death—and death, for uncounted millennia, had been considered as the end of all things for the one who died. Death was the bitter curse, the last enemy, the ultimate devourer of all the experience and meaning of life.
But this state of affairs was not acceptable to the Lover of Mankind. Even though death was a just punishment for sin, God wished to redeem his creatures made in his image. He could have simply said, “All is forgiven,” but that would not have been a sufficiently profound expression of his everlasting love. He could have said, “I hereby abolish death,” and it would have been done, but He would have remained on his throne and the unbridgeable chasm between God and man would still have remained. God wouldn’t be satisfied until He personally crossed that chasm and made a way for us to cross over to Him. So rather than destroying the power of death with only a command, He actually experienced the agony of suffering and death, personally absorbing all its ancient terrors and its insatiable lust for the destruction of all that lives. According to the Epistle, this was a priestly service by which He made expiation for our sins. For, as St Paul says, death came into the world through sin. So if Christ was to deliver us from the power of death, He would have to make expiation for our sins. He did both by his death on the Cross and his Resurrection.
Now we have a way back to God; now we can cross the bridge that leads to Heaven. It would have been utterly impossible to do with without the Incarnation, which made possible the sacrificial death of Christ. These two mysteries are expressed a little later in Hebrews, when the author writes: “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which He opened for us… through his flesh…” (10:19-20). The incarnate Son of God is Himself, in the reality of the human nature He assumed, the “new and living way”—new, because the way back to God didn’t exist before the Incarnation, and living, because after his Resurrection, Jesus shall die no more but lives forever to save those who put their faith and trust in Him.
All of this wonderful work of God on our behalf—without which death would have devoured us forever—began when a teenage Jewish girl said, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” So we return to the mystery of the Annunciation and why it is so important—and also why the Immaculate Virgin Mary is venerated so highly by the Church. She was the means by which our salvation came to pass, or shall we say, she provided that which was necessary for our Savior to save us, his human nature.
It is impossible to separate the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Cross, and so it is perhaps fitting that this feast does usually occur during Lent. The third Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of the Holy Cross, and very soon we will be entering the profound mystery of the Passion of Christ. Between these two shines a pure and gentle light from the Heart of the Mother, an opening to the joy that is the ultimate plan of God and that secretly underlies even the agony of the Cross, for we know how the story ends, or rather, that the story never ends—for death shall be swallowed up by Life in the Resurrection of Christ. Then the angel’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “Of his Kingdom there will be no end.” We affirm our faith in this every time we pray the Nicene Creed.
For now, we live in faith and in hope. The joy of the Age to Come has not yet been manifested, only promised. We have miles to go before we sleep, that is, before this earthly journey comes to an end and we enter into eternal rest from the labors and sufferings of this life. In the time that still remains we must align our hearts and thoughts with those of Our Lady, who said yes to the will of God in all things. It was not only at the Annunciation that her consent was required to fulfill the will of God. Her whole life had to be a surrender, a selfless embrace of the mystery of God in her life, in both joy and sorrow. Her yes was perhaps hardest to pronounce as she stood at the foot of the Cross. It’s one thing to say yes when hearing that you are miraculously going to be the Mother of the Messiah, who will reign forever, and quite another to see this Messiah condemned, tortured and executed with common criminals.
There are liturgical texts in which Mary recalls the mystery of the Annunciation as she stands before the Cross, wondering what had become of the angel’s prophecies of joy and glory, now that her whole world, her love, her hope, was pierced by nails and torn by scourges. But she wouldn’t leave Him, wouldn’t despair, and thus she said yes to God to the bitter end, and so was rewarded with the revelation of his Resurrection, with the Gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and with eternal joy in Heaven. She is the Queen Mother glorified at the side of the King, her Son, as the mothers of the sons of David, the kings of Israel, were honored in their time (see, for example, 1Kgs. 2:19). But this Queen Mother and her Son are unlike any that went before them and any that came since. For she alone had conceived in her womb and bore a divine Son, whom she called Jesus. The Holy Spirit had come upon her and the Power of the Most High overshadowed her. The Child that was born was called the Son of God. He was great, for He was the Son of the Most High; and He reigns forever, for his Kingdom will have no end.