Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Even Still Yet More on the Annunciation

I just came across a passage from a book by the late Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann that I’d like to share. I ended yesterday’s post on a note of joy and I’d like to continue that theme here. He writes, on the mystery of the Annunciation:

“The rationalist will say, ‘When do angels ever appear to young women and hold conversations with them? Do believers really think that people…living in a technological civilization could believe this?’ The believer always has only one answer to this kind of contentious debate, disparagement and ridicule: yes, alas, it is impossible to fit this into your shallow worldview, as long as your arguments about God and religion remain on the superficial level of chemical experiments and mathematical formulas…You desire the entire world to think as you do, in terms of production and economic forces… Yet the world does not naturally think in this way and must be handcuffed and forced to do so… For everything most profound and most essential in life has always been expressed in the language of imagination…

“It strikes me that mankind has never forgotten this story, that these few verses have repeatedly been incorporated into countless paintings, poems and prayers, and that they have inspired and continue to inspire. This means, of course, that people heard something infinitely important to them in these words, some truth which apparently could be expressed in no other way than in the childish, joyful language of Luke’s Gospel. What is this truth? What happened when the young woman, barely past childhood, suddenly heard—from what profound depth, from what transcendent height!—that wonderful greeting: ‘Rejoice!’ For that is indeed the angel’s message to Mary: Rejoice!

“…People don’t even know what the word means. But the very same joy announced by the angel remains a pulsating force that still has power to startle and shake human hearts. Go into a church on the eve of Annunciation… with such divine, exquisite beauty the choir begins to sing the familiar festal hymn, ‘With the voice of the Archangel, we cry to you, O Pure One: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!’ Hundreds and hundreds of years have gone by, and still, as we hear this invitation to rejoice, joy fills our heart in a wave of warmth. But what is this joy about? Above all we rejoice in the very presence of this woman herself, whose face, whose image, is known throughout the world, who gazes upon us from icons, and who became one of the most sublime and purest figures of art and human imagination. We rejoice in her response to the angel, in her faithfulness, purity, wholeness, in her total self-giving and boundless humility, all of which forever ring out in her words: ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word’ …

“The Church answers the lie about man, the lie that reduces him to earth and appetite, to baseness and brutality, the lie that says he is permanently enslaved to the immutable and impersonal laws of nature, by pointing to the image of Mary, the most-pure Mother of God… The lie continues to pervade the world, but we rejoice because here, in the image of Mary, the lie is shown for what it is… We rejoice because in gazing at this image, it is so easy to believe in the heavenly beauty of the world and in man’s heavenly, transcendent calling. The joy of Annunciation is about the angel’s Glad Tidings, that the people had found grace with God and that soon, very soon, through her, through this totally unknown Galilean woman, God would begin to fulfill the mystery of the world’s redemption…

“This is what we celebrate on the Annunciation and why the feast has always been, and remains, so joyful and radiant. But I repeat, none of this can be understood or expressed in the limited categories and language familiar to ‘scientific’ atheism… [This] leads us to conclude that this approach willfully and arbitrarily has declared an entire dimension of human experience to be non-existent, unnecessary and dangerous, along with all the words and concepts used to express that experience. To debate this approach strictly on its own terms would be like first climbing down into a black underground pit where, because the sky cannot be seen, its existence is denied. The sun can’t be seen, and so there is no sun. All is dirty, repulsive, and dark, and so beauty is unknown and its existence denied. It is place where joy is impossible, and so everyone is hostile and sad. But if you leave the pit and climb out, you suddenly find yourself in the midst of a resoundingly joyful church where once again you hear, ‘With the voice of the Archangel, we cry to you, O Pure One: Rejoice!’” (Celebration of Faith: Sermons, vol. 3)