by Mikhail Nesterov
The announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ, the Son of God, is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the church year in Orthodoxy, and is celebrated exactly nine months before the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, on March 25th. The words above are from a hymn that we sing on this feast.
Not long ago I read The Presence of Mary, a booklet by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in the St. Athanasius Study Series, published by Conciliar Press © 1988. In 26 pages the author discusses in depth the role of Christ’s mother in our salvation history, and sets it against “…the fundamental spiritual disease of our time [that] must be termed anthropological heresy.”
That last clause piqued my interest, too! I’ve been wanting to take the time to read the booklet again and write a real review about the truths that Fr. Schmemann helps to clarify, but that time is not now. However, the present moment and celebration does seem to be right for at least posting a quote from the book, as we contemplate her who is “blessed among women.” (I have underlined the words that were in italics in the original.)
It is clear that an abstract and impersonal study of man posits a self-evident conclusion: man as total dependence. An equally abstract exaltation of man posits its a priori premise: man as total freedom. But both are revealed in the unique personal experience of Mary, an experience given to the Church and made into her experience, as one and the same truth about man.
In Mary, the very notions of “dependence” and “freedom” cease to be opposed to one another as mutually exclusive. We are inclined to think that where there is dependence there can be no freedom, where there is freedom there can be no dependence. Mary, however, accepts, she obeys, she humbles herself before the living Truth itself, a Presence, a Beauty, a Life, a Call so overwhelmingly evident that it makes the notion of “dependence” an empty one — or rather identical and coextensive with that of freedom. For as long as freedom is nothing but the other side of dependence — a protest, a rebellion against dependence — as long as freedom itself depends on dependence for its meaning, it is also an empty notion. Each time freedom chooses and accepts, it ceases to be freedom. Here, however, in the unique experience of Mary, freedom becomes the very content of dependence, the one eternally fulfilling itself in the other as life, joy, knowledge, communion, and fulness.
Admittedly these are poor, inadequate, and clumsy human words about an experience, a vision, a reality which transcends all human words. But, having read them, look again at that woman who eternally stands at the very heart of the Church filling our hearts with a mysterious yet ineffable joy, making us repeat eternally that same salutation which she heard in the depth of her heart on the day of Annunciation: Rejoice!