25 March 2010

The Annunciation

Patrick Comerford

Today [25 March] is the feast of “The Annunciation of the Theotokos” – a day that is celebrated in the calendars of both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.

Icons for today’s feast draw on the Biblical account, but Orthodox iconography is often supplemented and augmented by images that draw from the Protevangelion of James, an apocryphal text that was the source of imagery for Mary for both East and West into the Middle Ages, although it is largely unknown in the West today.

This text, written ca 150 CE, was one of the early arguments for the perpetual virginity of Mary. It draws on sources in the Gospel according to both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, but it expands on them considerably, adding several other stories that became part of later pious, popular literature.

In the story, Mary leaves the temple at the age of 12, after an angel instructs the high priest to gather together the widowers of Judea. Joseph is “chosen by lot to take the virgin of the Lord into [his] care and protection.” Joseph initially objects, however: “I already have sons and I’m an old man,” but he is persuaded that it is his duty to take her.

After Mary moves into Joseph’s home, the council of priests decide that a new veil must be made for the Temple by “the uncontaminated virgins from the tribe [house] of David.” The high priest Samuel instructs the chosen maidens to “cast lots” to decide who should spin which threads for the veil, and in particular who is to spin “the true purple.”

The purple and the scarlet skeins fell by lot to Mary. She takes her threads home and is spinning them when she is visited by the Angel Gabriel.

In the Protevangelion of James, there is first a “pre-annunciation” scene, in which Mary goes to the well to fetch water. There she hears a voice saying: “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” Mary looks around but does not see anyone. Frightened, she goes back inside and, “taking up the purple, she sat down in her house and began to spin.”

The angel then appears visually to her, telling her initially not to be afraid: “You have found favour in the sight of the Lord of all.”

The Annunciation story then continues along the same narrative outline found in the Gospels according to Saint Matthew and Saint Luke until the author returns to the story of Mary’s role in weaving the temple veil: “And she finished the purple and the scarlet and took them up to the high priest.”

Accepting the work from her, he congratulates her saying: “God has extolled your name.”

He then prophesies that she will be remembered “by all the generations of earth.”

In the Eastern Church, the principle features of the icon of the Annunciation include the Virgin with a skein of red or purple wool in her hand; the Angel Gabriel, with his left hand holding a staff, symbolising his role as messenger; and a circle of light (usually a half-circle) at the top of the icon with rays of light streaming down onto Mary.

The Angel Gabriel’s right hand is extended in the traditional Greek iconographic blessing, forming the Greek letters for the name of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes the light conceals or reveals the figure of a dove. The equilibrium of these three figures forms a triangle, with the Virgin as its apogee and the angel and the dove as opposite points that converge on her.

A Trinitarian theme is reinforced by three rays of light proceeding from the dove or from the half-circle.

This is the Annunciation scene that appears on the “royal doors” of the iconostasis of almost every Orthodox church.

Mary is depicted either standing or sitting, with purple or red skeins falling from her fingers. The threads Mary is holding reveal that she wove the Temple veil that later was rent from top to bottom when Christ died on the cross. Her acceptance of God’s will in this and in all things is represented by her upraised and open hand or, in some cases, by placing her hand upon her heart.

Saint Andrew of Crete, in his Great Canon, sang to her: “As from purple silk, O undefiled Virgin, the spiritual robe of Emmanuel, His flesh, was woven in thy womb. Therefore, we honour thee as Theotokos in very truth.”

Using the same imagery, Saint John of Damascus explains that, having entered the world by means of the Virgin, the King of Glory “is clothed with the purple of his flesh.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his book Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, gives a reflection on this apocryphal story that is rich in meaning. Mary, who spins the “sanctuary veil … the sign of the unbridgeable gulf between sinful humanity and the holy God,” is also preparing herself to become the sanctuary. “From the sanctuary of heaven, from the terrifying emptiness between the cherubim on the ark, God enters another sanctuary, the holy place of a human body.”

And so, the story of the Annunciation and Mary’s Yes is an appropriate story at this stage as we observe Lent and prepare to move into Holy Week.

Collect of the Day:

Pour your grace into our hearts, Lord,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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