Today’s Gospel (Mark 10:32-45, see sidebar), read on the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent (Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt) was not heard in our parishes across Canada, or indeed in any Orthodox Church around the world.
Instead, parishioners heard the Gospel according to Luke (1:24-38) for the Great Feast of theAnnunciation of the Theotokos.
Because the Annunciation (March 25th) happens to fall on a Sunday during Great Lent this year, its Bible reading takes precedence over the customary reading for the Fifth Sunday of the Fast. This liturgical peculiarity of the Church calendar highlights an important theme and unique characteristic of Orthodoxy; namely, its deep liturgical richness, offering the faithful countless opportunities to cultivate a personal relationship with Christ.
This week’s Great Lent: Sunday Bible Reading article, the final in our five-week series, will take a slightly different approach than the first four weeks in order to emphasize this point.
Let us ask ourselves and consider quietly, in our heart and in our mind, the blessings provided to us by the Church to become holy, to become Christ-like, as the Apostle Paul exhorts us to do.
Today, with great joy and festivity we commemorate the Annunciation of the Theotokos, nine months before we celebrate the Nativity of Christ.
Today’s Gospel concludes with the Ever-Virgin Mary declaring to the Archangel Gabriel: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Although the Bible records the Theotokos as being “greatly troubled” initially, let us look at how she responds. What personifies her answer to the angel? Love. Humility. Obedience. Service.
Do these virtues embody how we live our life? Do these virtues dominate our words, thoughts, and deeds? These are not simple rhetorical questions, but rather meaningful personal queries that we should contemplate and make improvements, where necessary.
But today is also the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. With her life she not only directs the faithful, but proves the power of repentance, that is, real repentance – change – in Christ our God.
In the Gospel that is traditionally read today, the Lord says: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
A common theme today – from the Bible reading, to the Theotokos and St. Mary of Egypt – is service.
Christ’s twelve disciples, together with His Mother, and St. Mary of Egypt, strove to serve the Lord. They did so in different ways, because each of them – like each of us today – are different, having a different calling from God, different gifts bestowed upon them, and different needs.
But the goal of each of them – like each of us today – is one: salvation in Christ.
The Theotokos, of course, is a unique person in the Church, in humanity, actually. She is the Holiest of all Saints and … More honourable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.
While St. Mary of Egypt took a drastically different path, it too led to the Kingdom of God.
Our calling, especially as we celebrate today’s dual-feast, is to remember the narrow gate and be servants of God, according to His commandments, which will lead us to true freedom and life eternal.
The Annunciation of the Theotokos
When the All-holy Virgin had completed the fourteenth year after her birth and was entering her fifteenth year, after having spent eleven years living and serving in the Temple of Jerusalem, the priests informed her that, according to the Law, she could not remain in the Temple but was required to be betrothed and enter into marriage. To the great surprise of the priests, the All-holy Virgin answered that she had dedicated her life to God and that she desired to remain a virgin until death, not wanting to enter into marriage with anyone! Then according to God’s providence and inspiration, Zacharias, the high priest and father of the Forerunner, in agreement with the other priests, gathered twelve unmarried men from the tribe of David, so that they might entrust the Virgin Mary to one of them to preserve her virginity and care for her. She was entrusted to Joseph of Nazareth, who was her kinsman. In the house of Joseph, the All-holy Virgin continued to live as she did in the Temple of Solomon, occupying her time in the reading of sacred Scripture, in prayer, in godly thoughts, in fasting, and in handiwork. She rarely went anywhere outside the house and was uninterested in worldly matters and events. She spoke very little to anyone, if at all, and never without special need. She most often associated with Joseph’s two daughters. When the fullness of time had come, as prophesied by Daniel the Prophet, and when God was pleased to fulfill His promise to the banished Adam and to the prophets, the great Archangel Gabriel appeared in the chamber of the All-holy Virgin. This occurred, as some Church writers have related, precisely at the same moment that she held open the book of the Prophet Isaiah and was contemplating his great prophecy: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son! (Isaiah 7:14). Gabriel appeared in all of his angelic brightness and saluted her: Rejoice, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee! (Luke 1:28), and the rest, as it is written in the Gospel of the blessed Luke. With this angelic annunciation and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Virgin, the salvation of mankind and the restoration of all creation began. The history of the New Testament was opened by the words of the Archangel Gabriel: Rejoice, thou that art highly favored. This shows that the New Testament signified joy to mankind and to all created things. Therefore the Annunciation is considered not only a great feast but also a joyful feast.
Hymn of Praise
Theophanes the Cretan and the Iconography of the Annunciation (Courtesy of The Friends of Mount Athos: Annual Report (2012): 40-47.)
Source: St. Nikolai Velimirovic, The Prologue of Ohrid – Volume One.
Today marks the crowning of our salvation and the revelation of the mystery before all ages. For the Son of God becomes the son of the Virgin, and Gabriel proclaims the grace. Wherefore, we also cry out with him, “Hail, O full of grace, the Lord is with you.”
To you, Theotokos, invincible Defender, having been delivered from peril, I, your city, dedicate the victory festival as a thank offering. In your irresistible might, keep me safe from all trials, that I may call out to you: “Hail, unwedded bride!”