In his Gospel (Lk. 1:24-38), St. Luke shares with us the events preceding the divine birth of Jesus
Christ, events celebrated under the feast of Annunciation (March 25). The Angel Gabriel announces
the most holy Virgin Mary that she ‘found favor with God.’ The significance of this extraordinary
event is revealed in the troparion of the feast: ‘Today is the beginning of our salvation and the revelation
of a mystery which was hidden from eternity. The Son of God
becomes the Virgin’s Son…’.
St. Luke’s rendition of the Annunciation starts with another extraordinary event, the birth of St. John the Baptist. St. John preceded his cousin not only in faith, but also in birth: only five months separated the conception of the two most important persons for our
faith. The details about Elisabeth’s pregnancy with St. John is not just a mark of time for the other extraordinary event, the Annunciation, but an occasion to give the right honor to the two events, as well as to
give us the chance to compare them.
According to St. Luke, the events leading to the birth of Jesus are plainly distinguished from those leading to the birth of the Baptist.
The experience of Elisabeth is more similar to that of Sarah, rather than that of her cousin, Virgin Mary. Elisabeth was advanced in age as Sarah; Virgin Mary was about twelve, twelve and a half at her betrothal.
Elisabeth’s grief of barrenness was responded by God’s miraculous intervention, but nevertheless the conception was regarded as natural. The miracle of virgin conception is unique to Mary.
The mystery of the divine conception is a reminiscence of the miracle of the creation: in Gen. 1:2 the Spirit of God hovered over the waters, in Luke 1:35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…”. With the divine conception, a new creative act of God took place, and that made the
birth of Jesus unique even from a physical point of view.
One of the most debated issues related with the conception of Jesus Christ is the difficulty to understand the birth from a virgin who was married to Joseph. Clarifications are needed, as difficulties arise both from the translation and from the historical and cultural context. From some translations we learned that Virgin Mary was espoused to Joseph, from others that she was betrothed to a
man whose name was Joseph.
We know that both Joseph and Mary were of the royal lineage of David, while in Mary’s family the priesthood played an important role. Through her mother Anna, Mary was related to Elisabeth,the wife of the priest Zacharias, and both parents of St. John the Baptist.
The betrothal and the marriage were kept in high regard by the Jews; the bridal pair on the marriage–day symbolized the union of God with Israel. The pious fasted before the marriage and confessed their sins; it was almost a sacrament. A special formality, that of ‘betrothal’ preceded the actual marriage by a period varying in length, but not exceeding 12 months.
At the betrothal (Erusin Qiddushin), the bridegroom, personally or by deputy, handed to the bride an amount of money or a letter, in both cases being expressly stated that he espoused the woman. From the moment of betrothal both parties were regarded and treated in law (as to inheritance, adultery, need of formal divorce), as if they had been actually married, except as regarding
their living together.
At the time of betrothal, both Joseph and Mary were extremely poor, as appears not from the fact that Joseph was a carpenter (a trade was regarded as almost a religious duty), but because of the offering at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (two turtle doves, the offering of the poor).
Maybe Joseph handed a letter instead of money to Joachim and Anna, the parents of the maiden Mary, but he honored her and her parents with the ceremony of betrothal, in which a benediction was said. From that moment Mary was the betrothed wife of Joseph; any breach of it would
be treated as adultery. Yet months, up to a year, might intervene between the betrothal and marriage.
At this time in their lives Angel Gabriel appeared, in the privacy of the humble house of Nazareth, carrying the greatest honor bestowed on a human being as to mark the exclusively divine character of what was to happen. It was not so much the sudden appearance of the Angel,
or the usual words of greeting, ‘Peace be with you’, but the address, “Hail O Favored One, the Lord is with you”.
The designation, “O Favored One” came upon her
with bewildering surprise not so much because of her low
estate, as from the self-conscious humility of her heart. This
‘divine favor’ was materialized not only in the unique conception of Virgin Mary, but also in the given name Jesus. For Jesus or Jeshua, is an abbreviation of Jehoshua, which means “ he who would save his people”.
It was not at all strange for Mary to learn from the
Angel Gabriel before even the conception the name of her
Child. In the times of the old (the times of the Old Testament),six names were given before the birth to the highly expected children in patriarchal or kingly families: Isaac, Ishmael,Moses, Solomon, Josiah, and the name of Messiah.
What a great company for Jesus!
That to Jesus the throne of David will be given would
be a pleasant surprise for Virgin Mary, but yet not shocking,as both Virgin Mary and Joseph were from the lineage of King David. Neither the good news that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and will overshadow her would be so shocking for Virgin Mary, because the participation of the Holy Spirit at the great events in the lives of the Jewish people was quite familiar to Israel at the time. The difference is that usually the Holy Spirit was manifested in the lives of the mighty, the rich or the wise.
To strengthen the conviction of Virgin Mary that the
“divine favor” is with her and that this divine favor is a reality and not a dream, the Angel reminded her about the similar event in the life of her cousin, Elisabeth.
Elisabeth, in her old age, who was ashamed for her bareness (infertility), now was in her
sixth month of pregnancy. “For with God nothing will be impossible”.
This last encouragement is the one which provoked a humble, obedient and unselfish answer:“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”.
What we can learn from this wonderful story? That in the miracle of the “divine conception”, the “mighty of God” was matched by the obedience of a poor and obedient virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph; that the miracle of “divine conception” is a new form of creation,
one in which God is a direct participant and where His creation graciously submitted to Him;that like Virgin Mary we received the Holy Spirit at our baptism and we have the duty to change our lives accordingly. Once we were marked by a “divine touch” we should continue to cherish it
and to transmit it to generations and generations of people.
Fr. Vasile Mihai, ST. PAUL, Savannah, GA
Troparion of Annunciation- Tone 4:
Today is the beginning of our salvation,
The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace,
The Lord is with You!
Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta
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Proistamenos: His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios