In Orthodox liturgical tradition, the rhythm of Great Lent is interrupted, and in an important sense fulfilled, by the Feast of the Annunciation. As we journey with Christ through the last days of His earthly ministry, our attention is focused on His impending crucifixion and resurrection. Yet this mystery is possible only because of another, equally central to His mission and to our faith: the mystery of His incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
We live in a time when serious theological works as well as the popular press depict Jesus of Nazareth as an itinerant prophet, a political zealot, or at best, an occasional worker of miracles. His “humanity” is stressed to the point that traditional language used to speak of the transcendent aspect of His person—“the God-man,” “the eternal Son and Word of God,” “One of the Holy Trinity”—is dismissed as myth or metaphor.
The bedrock of Orthodox faith, on the other hand, is the conviction that “the [eternal] Word,” the preexistent Son of God, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In the most literal, ontological sense of the term, He became “incarnate,” taking human nature from the Virgin in whose womb He was conceived. As the apostle Paul so eloquently expresses it in the confessional hymn of Philippians 2, He who was equal with God (the Father) assumed human existence, “emptying Himself,” to take on the form of a servant.
The Monogenês, or hymn to the “Only Begotten Son and immortal Word of God” that completes the second antiphon of the Divine (eucharistic) Liturgy, qualifies this biblical affirmation by a single key word, atreptôs, “without change.” Without change the eternal Son of God assumed human nature, thereby redeeming and deifying that nature, so that those who are baptized into Him and partake of His life-giving Body and Blood might share in His victory over death and ascend with Him into the glory which He shares with the Father from all eternity. Without change the Son of God became the Son of the Virgin; and therefore the Church honors and exalts Him as “the God-man.”
In the language of the early Church Fathers, “He became man that we might become god.” He assumed fallen human nature in order to glorify that nature and to open before us the possibility to participate immediately, intimately in His own divine life. Thereby human persons become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), virtually “deified” by sharing in the very attributes of God, the “divine energies” of righteousness, justice, holiness, beauty and love.
This great mystery of our salvation and deification is grounded in a still greater mystery, the “eternal mystery” of the incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. And the entire purpose of this greater mystery is precisely to create the indispensable conditions for our salvation.
“Today is revealed the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of Man!
By accepting the lowest, He grants me the highest!
Of old, Adam failed to become a god, as he wished,
But now God becomes man, that He may make Adam god!”
(Praises of the feast)
Without this eternal mystery of incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth would be nothing more than a prophet, a zealot or a miracle-worker among many others. He might be a model of God-like behavior, a wise counselor and a story-teller of extraordinary talent. But He would be neither Redeemer nor Savior nor Author of Life. And you and I would be “dead in our sins,” stripped of all meaning and devoid of hope.
But because of the Virgin’s fiat, Christ is both Lord and Savior; and you and I share nothing less than “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27; 3:4).
“The co-eternal Son of the Father
Who shares His throne and like Him is without beginning,
Has emptied Himself in His compassion and merciful love for mankind.
According to the good pleasure and counsel of the Father,
He has gone to dwell in a Virgin’s womb—a womb sanctified by the Spirit!
He who cannot be contained is contained in a womb;
The timeless One enters time….”
(Aposticha of the feast)
This is why, on this feast of Annunciation, we proclaim: “Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal mystery!”