Homily on the Annunciation by Saint Photios the Great

Gay is today’s festival, and splendid is the joy it conveys to the ends of the earth. The joy it yields scatters old sorrow; the joy it yields banishes the curse of the world, inaugurates the raising of him who fell long ago, and pledges salvation to all of us. An angel converses with a virgin, and the whispering of the serpent is made idle, and the impact of his plot is averted. An angel converses with a virgin, and Eve’s deceit fails, and convicted nature, seen to vise above condemnation, as it had been before condemnation, is enriched with the possession of paradise as its portion. He speaks to the Virgin, and Adam receives a pledge of liberty, and the serpent, instigator of evil, is deprived of his tyranny over our kind, and is dispossessed of his authority, and learns now that he had armed himself in vain against Creation. His devices against us weaken, as an incorporeal being brings the message of the invincible trophy against sin: for Christ’s cross and willing suffering are death and sin swallowed up in victory, and such also is His suffering through the Incarnation. The angel is now bearing the good tidings of the Incarnation, in which tidings we are rejoicing today, and whose festival we are celebrating. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and human nature is renewed; for, having quaffed the tidings like a remedy of salvation, it spits out all the poison of the serpent, and is cleansed from the spots of its disease. An angel is being sent to the Virgin, and the bond of sin is being torn up, and the penalty for the disobedience is abolished, and the universal recall is pledged in advance. Today the tidings of joy have arrived, since the archangel is exchanging words with the virgin maiden, since the commander of the invisible host is conversing with Mary, espoused to Joseph but designated and preserved for Jesus. But what is he uttering and what tidings is he bringing? What? O, unspeakable words of an awful mystery, and incomprehensible manner of a strange speech! What he is uttering and what tidings he is bringing I am led on to say, and I cower with anguish. I cower as I begin to fathom the sea of the Lord’s love of man. I cower, being required to plumb the depths of the divine dispensation. My mind reels at grappling with the subject,’ speech withdraws, and my tongue shrinks from speaking. Once more, as though striving with eagerness, speech wants to talk freely, but perplexity arms silence against it, and makes the latter prevail.

The Annunciation by the hand of Sister Theovouli

But come, O wisest of the Evangelists, and joining in the beginning of my speech, cast out my anguish by thy help, and reviving my faint heart, pledge me courage by thy support, saying: “In the sixth month the archangel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph of the house and lineage of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail, much-graced one, the Lord is with thee.’ Seest thou what it was he was bringing, and what he spoke to her? Seest thou the cause of the conversation? ‘‘Hail,’’ saith he, “much-graced one, the Lord is with thee.” O strange mystery, that escapes every mind and every apprehension! A mystery which is believed, not investigated; wondered at, not searched into; a mystery which is worshipped, but not examined; praised in song, not scrutinized; honoured, not weighed; longed for, not apprehended. An angel is sent to a virgin, pledging the Lord’s presence, announcing God’s coming among men, bringing the good tidings of the re-creation of Creation. An angel is sent to a virgin, disclosing the Lord’s descent, and the Lord comes with the message. The former brings the good tidings, and the Lord accompanies the words. The former cries out to the Virgin, “Hail, much-graced one,” and the Lord fulfils the joy by His action. The former calls out to the Virgin, ‘Hail, much-graced one,” and the whole world reaps through her the fruit of joy. He utters the fair salutation to the stainless maid, and the Virgin is troubled by his strange greeting, while the whole Creation leaps with joy at the good news of its salvation.

The honoured maid is troubled, but she does not reject. She is troubled by the words, but does not turn away from the bounty. For it says, “‘When she saw Him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.’ She was troubled, she did not turn away; she was troubled, but she cast in her mind; she cast in her mind inquiring into the manner of the salutation, yet perceiving that its cause escaped understanding: what manner of salutation this should be. “For I see,’’ says she, “that it does not fall within the limits of the usual, that it has overleapt the laws of nature, is not circumscribed by human actions:
what manner of salutation this should be. I see the messenger standing reverently, and I am moved to receive his message joyfully; but he addresses me bridal words, and changes the joy to fear, and troubles my soul with his message. I see his face restrained by modesty, but he announces to me the coming of a bridegroom. I see him conversing wisely, but he utters words of conception, and the Jove of virginity forces me to suspect his saying as a wile. What manner of salutation this should be. For this reason,” says she, “I am troubled, seeing the matter evenly balanced in my mind. For the messenger’s rank and manner, and his seemly aspect indicate that the message comes from God. His words, however, which give the impression of being those of a suitor, prompt me to refuse assent.” For indeed, saith the Evangelist, “‘seeing Him she was troubled.”’ Seeing what, and wherefore was she troubled? Seeing the angel looking at her with chaste eyes, yet bringing tidings of a suitor; seeing Aim attend with a seemly gaze, yet speaking of a marriage contract. Having heard these bridal words, and seeing the manner of the conversation to be untouched by the passions, the holy Virgin was troubled by her conflicting thoughts and, seized by a prudent fear, was amazed by the strangeness of the salutation.

But what does the angel say to her? Did he leave her to be troubled by opposing thoughts? Did he forsake her to be tossed by the waves of perplexity? Would he not have been proved in that case to be a worthless minister of the command? Would he not have rightly paid a penalty because he had left the Virgin to be disturbed? What then says he? “Fear not, Mary, I have not come to speak to thee in deceit, but to introduce the abolition of deceit. I have not arrived to lead thee into error, but to pledge deliverance from error. I have not visited thee to violate thy inviolate virginity, but to bring the good tidings of the inhabitation of the Creator and Guardian of virginity. Fear not, Mary. I am not the servant of the serpent’s wickedness, but the delegate of Him who suppresses the serpent. The former, by means of his words, instilled the poison into human nature, and having mixed death into the potion, poured out the plague on everyone; I come to graff in? by means of the Lord’s commands unending life to the world,? whereby the disease of our kind is removed, and the blessedness in paradise is made free to all. The former, by the deceit of divinisation, pushed Adam into disobedience, and made him exchange his painless existence for a toilsome life; I bring thee the good tidings that the universal Creator shall truly make man divine in thy virginal and stainless womb, and dispel the spurious divinisation. I have come as a bridal escort, not as a plotter; an instigator of joy, not a cause of sorrow; as a herald of salvation, not a counsellor of perdition. Fear not, Mary. I will heal thy thoughts with the Lord’s commands, I will undo the bonds of thy perplexity. Thou hast found favour with God. The salutation is of divine favour, not an instrument of human nature; it is of a godly favour, and not of a human plot; of a godly favour, and not of bodily intercourse. It is of a favour which overleaps human understanding.”

But when thou hearest of favour, O man, think not that this gift was granted to the Virgin in vain, nor consider the present as an empty honour. For the Virgin found favour with God because she had made herself worthy before her Creator, because, having adorned her soul with the fairness of her purity, she had prepared herself as an agreeable habitation for Him who by His word has established heaven.” She found favour with God not only because she had kept her virginity inviolate, but also because she had maintained her desires unsullied; because since she was a babe she had been sanctified to God as a living and unquarried temple, built for the King of glory, for the stainlessness of her body, the exceeding splendour of her virginity, her undefiled chastity, the great purity of her disposition, her soul unwavering to sin and clinging” to the best. “For this reason thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son whom the Cherubim praise in fear. Thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son whom the ranks of the angels tremble to see, and the entire Creation is unable to contain. Thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son, the Creator of thy inviolate womb, not corrupting thy virginity, but sealing the belts of virginity; not destroying the purity of thy pregnancy, but showing it uncorrupted by fornication. Thou shalt conceive in thy womb Him who is present everywhere, but is contained by nothing, whom only thy womb is believed to receive and contain without being straitened. Thou shalt conceive in thy womb the Creator of
thy first ancestor. For it was about thee that the Prophet also cried out, saying, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.’”!* He is the mighty God, the Prince of peace, and the Father of the future age. The prophecies made concerning thee I too announce to thee today, and I am not come to offer my own words, but to bring the commands of Him who has sent me. It is He that inspired the prophet Isaiah to prophesy concerning thee; it is He again who entrusted me also to announce today the outcome of that prophecy which is soon to be fulfilled: “And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” And because through Him they will enjoy salvation, they shall call Him Jesus who has delivered them of their sins: His title comes from His bounty, His style from His function, His fair name from His deeds. They shall call Him Jesus, through whom the inexhaustible wealth of salvation flows to them; through whom the stings of death are broken, while the grace of immortality flourishes, and the might of sin collapses, while the nature of the fallen one rises triumphant. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest. He shall be great, as He had been, although He assumes the smallness of the flesh, although He puts on the humbleness of the body. He shall be great: nay, nor does the assumption of humanity debase the greatness of divinity, but the humbleness of humanity is rather exalted with it. He shall be great even after the incarnation, or, if thou wilt, even after His labours, even after His sweat has poured down in great drops, even as He takes upon Himself all that the nature of the flesh is wont to suffer. Wherefore, even if thou seest Him hungry, even if sweating, even if labouring, even if insulted and lashed, even if finally crucified, made dead and buried, do not consider it with reference to the divine Word as being in any way paltry and unworthy of God. For thus too” shall He be great, as He had been, although by the law of our nature He has willingly assumed in His own flesh the things of the flesh. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest. Thou shalt not call Him so, but He shall be called. Thou shalt not set this name upon Him, but He shall be called. And by whom shall He be called? Clearly, by the consubstantial Father who knows exactly the nature of the Son, since no man knoweth the Son, but the Father, and no man knoweth the Father, but the Son.” For He of whom the Son was ineffably and timelessly begotten, possesses also the unerring apprehension of Him; and He who has the true knowledge of the offspring, may be trusted also to apply an appropriate name. Wherefore saith the God of all and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.’” He is forever, though the name is given to Him now for our instruction and cognizance. For this reason, it says, ‘““He shall be named,” not “He shall become”: for before all time He had been enthroned together with His consubstantial Father. Him thou wilt conceive in thy womb, and His mother thou wilt be proclaimed; Him thy virginal womb receives. Whom the heavenly vault could not contain, in the hollow of whose hand everything is held, the work of whose providence is the maintenance and continuance of existent things, Him thou shalt conceive in thy womb.”

But what did the most-holy Virgin reply to this? Was she immediately softened by these words, and having opened her ears wide with pleasure, did she allow her thoughts to give assent without scrutiny ? Not at all. But what says she? ‘Now I know clearly that thou describest to me conception, pregnancy and the birth of a son, but thou hast increased my perplexity all the more. For how shall this be to me, seeing I know not a man?! For every birth comes from intercourse with a man, while abstention from relations with a man does not so much as permit one even to hear of conception. How then shall I have ofispring, whose begetter is unknown? How shall this be?’”—‘“And who knows how to interpret the Lord’s counsel? Who dares to inquire into the motives of the King’s command, and to unfold the reason of a mysterious dispensation? Who is able to relate the manner of the strange birth? Who has the strength to scrutinize an inscrutable mystery? How shall this be? One thing I know, one thing I have been taught, one thing I have been sent to tell. This I say: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. It is that which shall teach thee how thou shalt be pregnant. It shall interpret how thou shalt conceive. It is a participant in the Lord’s wish, since they are enthroned together, while I am a slave. I am a messenger of the Lord’s commands, not the interpreter of this particular command. I am the servant of His will, not the expounder of His intent. The Spirit shall set everything in order, for it searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. I cry out, ‘Hail, much-graced one,’ and I praise the miracle in song, and worship the birth, but I am at a loss to tell the manner of the conception. But if thou wishest to accept credence of my tidings by means of examples, inferring great things from small ones, and confirming the things to come by things past,—thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son in the same manner as Aaron’s rod was budded without cultivation, acting like a rooted plant. As the rain borne down from heaven on the fleece watered that alone but did not refresh the earth, thus thou too shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth the Lord. This thy ancestor also, David, announces in advance, inspired by God of thy pregnancy: ‘He shall come down like rain upon a fleece, like a drop falling upon the earth.’ As the bush received the fire, and feeding the flames was not consumed,” thus shalt thou conceive a son, lending Him thy flesh, providing nourishment to the immaterial fire, and drawing incorruptibility in return. These things prefigured thy conception, announced in advance thy delivery, represented from afar thy pregnancy. Those strange things have been wrought that they might confirm thy child’s ineffable birth. They happened beforehand that they might delineate the incomprehensibility of the mystery: for the flaming bush, and the bedewed fleece, and the rod bearing leaves would not have contributed anything useful to life, nor would they have incited man to praise the Wonder-worker, nay, the miracle would have fallen to no purpose, unless they had been set down as prefigurations of thy giving birth, and been, as it were, the advance proclamations of the Lord’s coming. Thou hast, if thou willest, thy neighbour and kinswoman Elizabeth as an example, for behold, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren; for with God nothing shall be impossible. He who releases the bonds of barrenness can also make unto Himself a birth without a man’s mediation. He who has renewed a withered root into a fruit-bearing stem, He shall also change unto Himself the unmoistened ground into fertile land.”

Such things the archangel was saying, drawing the spotless maiden to assent. But to this what was the reply of the honoured virgin, the heavenly chamber, the holy mountain, the sealed fountain, kept for Him only who had sealed it? “Since,” says she, ‘thou hast clearly explained that the Holy Ghost shall come upon me, I no longer demur, I no longer object. Be it unto me according to thy word,” If I am judged worthy for the Lord, I will gladly serve His will. If the Builder desires the thing built to become a temple to the Builder, let Him construct a house unto Himself as He has pleased. If the Creator rests on His creature, let Him mould in me His flesh as He knows how and wishes. Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word.* Let thy words be unto me fulfilled in the act. Let thy words be unto me in accordance with the deeds.”

The holy and uncorrupted Virgin for her part, having shown in such words her obedience to the Lord’s ambassador, put an end to the conversation. As for us, what shall we ofier to the Virgin? What words of praise shall we weave for her? What other, than those whose beginning Gabriel has first provided to us, saying, “Hail much-graced one, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Hail, because we see the sun of righteousness rising out of thee, illuminating both the heavenly and the earthly order, driving away the murk of error, and irradiating the universe with the splendour of Grace. Hail, much-graced one, because having raised for us without husbandry the soul-nourishing grain, thou hast destroyed the seeds of the soul-corrupting growth. Hail, because thou hast brought to all
of us the ambrosia of the life-giving bread, baked in thy flaming womb as in an oven, having removed like yeast the pest of the death-giving food. Hail, because thou hast made the tree of life bear fruit for us, which withers the offshoots of the tree of decay and yields the sweetness of knowledge. Hail, much-graced one, because thou hast stored away the pearl of great price,” conveying the wealth of salvation to the ends of the universe. Blessed art thou among women, because thou hast requited the discomfiture of woman’s transgression, having turned the reproach of deceit into a laudation of the sex; because in thee, a virgin, He who first moulded Adam out of virgin earth, today rernoulds man from thy virginal blood; because, having woven the fleshy garment of the Word, thou hast covered up the nakedness of the first-formed. Why should I enumerate each count? Hail, much-graced one, because super-human things were wrought in thee, and the blessing of all good things has bloomed for us through thy pregnancy.

O thou, Virgin and Mother—this new and strange thing under the sun—extend to us now also thy intercession for our protection. Send us thy help to guard us. Strengthen thy faithful slave, our pious emperor, with virtue and reverence to God, guiding him to steer with godly mind the helm of the kingdom down here, and showing him heir of the kingdom of Christ, our true God, thy Son and Master, over there, which may we all win through the grace and compassion of Christ Himself, our true God, conceived without seed, unutterably gestated, and inexplicably born. For it is He who has made us, and we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture,” and to Him we send up praise and worship, together with the co-eternal and consubstantial Father, and the life-giving, conjoined and co-everlasting Spirit,! now and for ever and ever. Amen.

English translation by Cyril Mango


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