As we journey to the Cross, suddenly, the turning of the calendar and rolling of the year brings us face to face with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel – today is nine months until Christmas. It is the feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate God’s self-giving love, as it was poured out in the conception of Christ and culminated in his saving death and glorious resurrection. From ancient times, Christians have seen the willing obedience of Mary as a grace-filled opposite to the disobedience of Eve and the obedience of Christ as the opposite of the disobedience to Adam. Here’s a hymn by St Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century German abbess and mystic, the antiphon “Quia ergo femina”:
Because a woman brought death a bright Maiden overcame it, and so the highest blessing in all of creation lies in the form of a woman, since God has become human in a sweet and blessed Virgin.
-Trans. Mark Atherton, Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings
This past Sunday, the Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary was the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) from St Gabriel that she would bear a Son. There is a lot one could say, and many of you no doubt heard much of it said from pulpits two days’ past!
My friend Rick recently posted about this passage, calling it the Gospel according to St Gabriel, showing how the message borne by the angel to the Mother of God is itself the Good News. One of the points made is that Gabriel’s greeting, Chaire! (I don’t have a Greek keyboard installed on this computer) should be “Rejoice!” rather than “Greetings!” as it is in most English Bibles.
Now, Chaire is the perfectly normal way of saying, “Hello!” in ancient Greek. So, if we leave this passage alone, on purely linguistic grounds, there’s no reason to switch from, “Greetings!” to “Rejoice!” Indeed, “Ave, Maria!” means, “Greetings, Mary!”
But it was pointed out, however, that Zephaniah 3:14-15 begins “Rejoice!” — “Rejoice, O daughter of Jerusalem! The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst!” This intertext in its Greek translation begins, indeed, with chaire!
If I had a concordance to the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, or LXX), I would search for other messianic prophecies that use chaire. But this is good enough, I think.
The point is that Gabriel is being intertextual. He is using the normal word for hello and then giving a prophetic utterance that itself ties into an Old Testament prophecy that uses that same word for hello to mean rejoice. The Annunciation, then, is a moment pregnant with meaning.
I hope we can all take a moment, then, for lectio divina and ponder anew the Gospel according to St Gabriel, wondering to ourselves what sort of greeting this is.
An interesting little piece recently appeared called ‘No More Lying About Mary’. It’s not bad, although it treads too closely to assumptions re the virginal conception (that is, I suspect [but may be wrong] the author denies it and thinks it is a story that tells Bad Things About Women and Sex, whereas it is a truth that tells us Good Things About Jesus) and verges on blasphemy on thinking that God would be pedophilic in choosing a teenage Mary to be the Mother of Our Lord.
Very little in the piece is new. The author rightly tries to take away the idea that Mary embodies a modern form of submissiveness, which is certainly not the case. Indeed, we see the Blessed Virgin carefully scrutinising the Angel Gabriel about his person and his news before she says, ‘Let it be unto me according to your will.’ And, as I like to observe, she is pretty much the only receiver of an angelic messenger in the Bible who, having heard all that was to be said, says yes without making excuses. None of the ‘great men of the Bible’ were so in tune with God that they were ready to embrace His will once they knew it.
So we need to praise St Mary, as the article encourages us.
Nonetheless, the author is keen to attack something called ‘submissiveness’.
‘Submissiveness’ seems to be something horrific imposed upon Mary by the patriarchy and used to subjugate women throughout history.
I don’t think it’s something I’m interested in.
And, given the long line of biblical and saintly women such as the warrioress Deborah, or Judith cutting of Holofernes’ head, or the BVM, or Sts Hildegard, Hilda, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Lady Julian of Norwich, I don’t think that traditional Christianity is actually interested in some form of submissiveness, and certainly not the subjugation of women.
Now, certain men throughout the history of the Church have clearly done their best to misuse Scripture and Tradition to that end, but that’s not the same thing. Just as we are to take neighbourliness, love, non-coercive preaching, and freedom to worship in synagogues from St Gregory the Great as the Christian approach to our Jewish neighbours, so we should look to the right thinkers in how Christian men and women love women (Christian and otherwise).
In the comments section, the author says, ‘Christ is never about submission, is always about raising us up and setting us free.’
Unfortunately, this isn’t true.
Christ is certainly about raising us up and setting us free.
But He is not never about submission.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m slowly working my way through St Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity. It’s a good time. One of the issues that any reading of Scripture in relation to the Trinity and Christology must work through is what to do with statements such as, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (Jn 14:28) (A more readable, modern discussion of such statements is Browne’s Exposition of the 39 Articles.) In his Incarnate state, as St Augustine shows, Jesus the Christ is clearly submissive to the Father.
Here are some of the passages where Christ, Who is God the Word Incarnate, mentions this submission to the Father (all NRSV):
for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. (Jn 12:49)
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. (Jn 5:19)
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. (Jn 4:34)
I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (Jn 6:38)
Jesus Himself practised submission. What is remarkable is that these statements all come from the Gospel of John, which is notorious for having the highest Christology of the Gospels. John 1:1 says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ making it clear further on that Jesus is the Word. In this Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Before Abraham was, I am!’, and, ‘I and the Father are one,’ and, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’, and various other similar things not at the top of my head.
Once we acknowledge that the Bible teaches us that Jesus Himself was submissive to the will of the Father, we have a couple of options. We can explain it away or maybe reject these parts of the Bible. Or we can read the Bible holistically and see what this submission to the Father tells us both about Christ and about submission. In so doing, I believe we will shatter the false dichotomy between submission and freedom.
My approach to the Bible, unlike (I imagine — I could be wrong) that of the author of the Patheos blog who, elsewhere in the comments section, embraces John Dominic Crossan as the foremost NT scholar of our age, is necessarily triadic and deeply Trinitarian. I blame John Zizioulas, St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Athanasian Creed, and my Dad’s confirmation classes.
The Holy Trinity is three Persons in one God. They are consubstantial. But there is only one God. There are three hypostaseis but only one ousia. For a biblical defense of the Trinity, I again refer the reader to chapter one of Browne. In the modern Greek reading of the Cappadocian Fathers offered us by Zizioulas in Being As Communion, the Persons of the Trinity are a communion, and this communion is the foundation of all being. It’s beautiful and profound; don’t forget my bit on why the Trinity matters.
By the logic of the Trinity, God the Word has always existed, being with the Father from all eternity. He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit exist in a union that can perhaps best be described as ecstatic, self-emptying love. If we can redeem the concept of eros, they are filled with a universe-creating desire for one another. They choose out of their love to make stuff — the universe we inhabit — so that there can be more stuff to love. Not because they have to. Creation is contingent on the Most Holy Trinity; not the other way around.
This mutual giving and receiving pervades the whole of their Creation.
And then, out reasons directly related to the overflowing love of the Trinity for the Creation, One of the Persons of the Trinity chooses to be incarnate as a Man.
But He is also sent. Sent by the Father. He comes to earth to do the will of the One Who sent Him. There is no clearer message of submission than that.
However, Christ our God and God the Father exist in a perfect love relationship. Each is perfect and holy. Each loves perfectly and holily (not a word, sorry).
Therefore, when Incarnation is on the table, One of Them submits gladly out of love, and the Other Two gladly send Him to us.
Biblical submission is not about submission to clerics or to forces of power or to men or to anything else. It is about perfect submission in perfect love to the one who loves you perfectly.
And this is why we, too, submit. We submit to the Holy Trinity not because He/They tell us to or because He/They is powerful or He/They is lording it over us, but because He/They love us perfectly and know us perfectly and know what’s best for us, so we, in a love relationship of trust, submit to Them and Their perfect relationship of perfect love and holy trust.
We are called elsewhere in Scripture to submit to one another, bearing each other’s burdens in love (Eph 5:21). St Paul doesn’t do so well in feminist circles today, but once again, the Scriptural virtue of submission is not the same as submissiveness. It is about willfully choosing to abandon self-love and self-will and self-fulfillment and self-importance to help others, choosing the obscure and uncomfortable path of service and love. It is about giving up myself and loving other people because Christ tells us that in others we will find Him. It is treating others better than ourselves, whether they are male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, Greek or Scythian — and whether we are any of these things ourselves.
As Christ says, those who lose their lives for His sake will find them (Mt 16:25).
When we come against the perceived ‘traditional’ view of something, especially when it has been misused, we need to seek the true tradition and the biblical use of that word. Perhaps submission is unpopular today. But perhaps it is where freedom lies. Perhaps meekness is unpopular today — and that’s a shame, since the meek will inherit the earth! (Mt 5:5)
I think that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM is one of those feasts that a lot of low(er) Protestants avoid because BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary = obvious Papist connexions. This is silly. The Annunciation is the first feast of the earthly life of Christ. Furthermore, unlike, say, the Dormition (Assumption), the Annunciation is a biblical event. And we all know how much we Protestants love the Bible!
This Feast is on March 25, and I celebrated it by popping in at my local Orthodox Church and standing around through the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Not that I could receive the Sacrament, but it was good to be there.
One of the Old Testament readings for this Feast was the end of the tale of Noah’s Ark, where he sends out the dove. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:
The dove foreshadowed the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:10), who caused the Holy Virgin to conceive Christ in her womb, and the olive leaf speaks of the Virgin herself (Lk 1:35, Akath).
That abbrev. ‘Akath’ = Akathist Hymn. The Service of the Akathist Hymn is a beautiful service of the Orthodox Church that takes place over the first five Fridays of Lent, the full Service occurring on the final; the hymn itself was possibly composed by Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century. It is a hymn all about the Theotokos (Mother of God, see here for why that’s an important title).
Anyway, I noticed neither during the service nor later when I read through the Akathist hymn myself this particular piece of typology (on the fourfold sense of Scripture, read here). It was not, however, the first piece of typology I thought of.
In Noah’s Ark, as all good Sunday School children know, were the entire human race and all the living animals as well. In the belly of the ark (fun fact: the Greek for belly and hold are similar). These humans and animals were saved from destruction in the terrible Flood by taking refuge in the Ark.
The typology I thought of was that the BVM is like the Ark because she carried the salvation of the world in her belly as well — she carried our Lord Christ, God Incarnate, without Whom we would all be lost, inside her womb. The Annunciation, celebrated nine months before Christmas, is the starting day of our salvation, as the priest noted to us in his homily that day.
The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this, citing once again the Akathist Hymn. It, however, was not my first place to turn but my second. My first place to turn was the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and there I found only typologies for the Ark as the Church, wherein the human race is saved. This typology also works.
Nonetheless, I like this old, forgotten way of reading the Bible. While I’ll never abandon the historical method, to have this more spiritual approach alongside adds greater depth to my reading. The Ark is the BVM. Cool.