11.24.2020

The Announcement to Mary


 The Announcement to Mary is the second week of the Maronite Season of the Nativity or the Announcement. When we discussed the Announcement to Zechariah we said something about the calendar and its seasons. Let us go deeper into the annual seasons: the cycle of feasts, fasts, and celebrations presents to us a complete course of the life of the Lord, of salvation history, and of our situation between time and eternity.

If we prayerfully follow the calendar, our minds and hearts are gently turned, week by week, to witness another aspect of God’s action in history; we deepen our knowledge of the Lord, His blessed mother, and His saints; we ponder the mystery of death on the Sundays of the Deceased, and we join in the sadness of the Passion and the joy of the Resurrection.

If we prayerfully follow the calendar, we will always have food to nourish us: food which is familiar but also varied. We have our regular devotions, but not those and nothing else. Just as physically we need a balanced diet, so too, in the spiritual life, we need a balanced diet of prayer. Sorrow in its right time, joy in its right time, teaching of virtue and warning against evil; expectation and fulfilment. The feasts of the calendar deliver all these to us. They present the whole of the faith in a sane and accurate way: the emphasis on God the Holy Trinity, but not forgetting the angels and saints; and we remember saints of many different descriptions: martyrs, scholars, men and women of action, clergy and laity.

The liturgical calendar gives us a direction through the year, and it provides us with balanced spiritual nourishment.

The Announcement to Mary

Once more, let us begin by contemplating the icon painted by Fr Abdo Badwi. It is closely based on five ancient icons. They are all strikingly similar, and yet they are all distinctive.

Fr Badwi wrote of this icon: “The Announcement to Mary is one of the oldest themes in Christian iconography. This icon is from the same inspiration as the previous one (the Announcement to Zechariah). The Virgin is standing in front of the veil of the Temple, symbol of her virginity because she is the Temple in which the Lord was pleased to dwell, whilst maintaining her virginity. She is pulling out a string (thread) from the basket (at her feet). According to the tradition, she is weaving the veil of the Temple with the chosen virgins. Her hand gesture is a sign of reception and submission. There is a spring and a water jar near her. She preserves the water of life and gives it to us. Another Syriac tradition places the Announcement near a well. The Archangel carries a pilgrims’ rod in his left hand, and greets her with his right hand. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, is a later tradition in iconography.”

At the top of the icon is written sbartō d.yōl.dat a.lō.hō, meaning “The Tidings of the Mother of God.” As with Zechariah, s.bar.tō or “good tidings” links this feast to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit enters from the top left hand, just as the angel is shown on every single one of the five ancient icons, and this one, entering from the left. The divine therefore encounters us from other dimensions. The Holy Spirit enters from the upper left, while St Gabriel the Archangel, enters from the middle level. Note, his right foot is raised, and his left foot, which goes before him, is flat. So he has arrived from the left, but he is standing higher than the level of the jar which is catching water from the well. So, although Gabriel is addressing Our Lady from eye level, he is in fact walking on the air, and she is standing on a platform. That is, although the divine messenger comes to us, and speaks to us on our level, yet he in himself belongs to the higher world.

Our Lady stands beneath the cupola of the Temple, and behind her is the veil of the Temple. As Fr Badwi said, she is weaving that veil. There is a very ancient Christian legend, known as The Protevangelium of James, although its true name may have been The Genesis of Mary. It is the oldest surviving sustained Christian study of Our Lady. By telling her story, it provides more reverent and uplifting teaching about her than three volumes of theology ever could. It is the oldest source to tell us that her parents’ names were Joachim (Yuwakim) and Anna (Hanna).

It also tells us that Our Lady was living in the temple complex, and worked at the weaving of the veil of the Temple – the veil which separated the holiest part of the Temple, protecting it from the entry of the impure and unholy. That was the very veil which was rent in half at the death of the Lord on Good Friday. This gives evidence of the very deep thought and spiritual understanding which went into this story, because it connects her action of knitting with her conception of the Lord and His formation in the womb; and it connects the end of her handiwork (the veil) to the death of the Lord. It also connects the Lord to the Temple. In other words, possibly as early as the second century A.D., Christians had been given the grace to understand that Mary’s work was at the end of the Old Covenant and the birth of the New, that by her acceptance, the Temple (the world) was brought to its greatest perfection, and it was embodied in the Lord who died, but by dying, made life eternal. They understood that where the divine and the earthly meet, there is a curtain: the curtain hides, and it reveals: one cannot see past it, but seeing it, one knows that something is hidden. And so the search is over when we reach the final veil, because behind that veil is God.

In terms of Syriac typology, what the Genesis of Mary is teaching, although as a tale rather than as a catechism, is that Our Lord is the true Temple, and because the Temple is the Universe, He is the essence of all the Creation. This also means that when we read the Bible, we can read Our Lord as the Temple, and as all the creation. There is a wide Creation and Temple-theology related to this, but I wish to pass on to just one more feature: the well and the replete jar.

Why, in five out of our six icons, does the iconographer draw the well as if it were a sort of tunnel of blue emerging from a box? That is not how wells look: they are openings in the earth, and in the ancient Near East, they were often circular brick structures with a rope going over the side so that buckets can be lowered in. So why this strange way of drawing the water?

I think that the answer is found in ancient Egyptian art. Although the Egyptians usually depicted water by drawing wavy lines, when they drew pools and wells, they were often depicted similar to what we see in this icon. They usually painted objects by showing them not as we see them when looking at them, but as we do when thinking about them: e.g. showing the entire eye, and not just the little part we see. So here we see the surface of the water, even though it is shown unrealistically above the level of the jar, as if it dripping water into the jar, when in fact the jar would have to be lowered into it. In Reading Egyptian Art, Richard H. Wilkinson explains that water was, for them, “the primeval matter from … all things arose; and the pool could thus signify the primeval waters of the First Time” (137). I think this gives us another clue to the reason water is shown here: according to typology, the waters of the earth are the waters of the creation – and the Lord is about to be incarnated, created in human form. In the presence of Mary, the jug is being filled: the creation is flowing from the source into this world in a special form.

Just as the wool took form as the veil of the Temple, so the water takes form when it flows into the jar. So too, the Lord takes form in the womb of the believing maiden. This icon, then, is an icon of the mystery of creation: through the Holy Spirit, through water, and by the faith of the Virgin.


11.13.2020

Joyful Anticipation - the Season of Announcements

 

The Maronite Season of the Nativity or the Announcement, meaning the Announcement of the Birth of the Messiah, is a season of the miraculous. It is full of miracles, and we insist that the miracles of the season are to be understood literally, and not only as symbols. In the events we remember at this time, we see heaven putting forth its power and working wonders on the earth.

I would go so far as to say that if we do not acknowledge and celebrate the supernatural origin of Christianity, we cannot understand Christianity – rather, we remake it as a sort of human philosophy and ideology with some fetching stories attached. The feasts we celebrate on each Sunday in the Season are also observed on each day of the week which follows them. They are the spine of the season, the destinations of the Christmas journey. There are nine such feasts, two of which, Christmas and the Circumcision can fall on any day of the week, not necessarily Sunday.

  1. The Announcement to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-21 and 57-79)
  2. The Announcement to Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
  3. The Visitation of the Virgin to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
  4. The Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66)
  5. The Revelation to St Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25)
  6. Genealogy Sunday (the Sunday before Christmas) (Matthew 1:1-17)
  7. Christmas, or the Birth of the Lord (Luke 2:1-20)
  8. Sunday of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (the first Sunday after Christmas) (Luke 2:22-38)
  9. The Circumcision of Our Lord, New Year’s Day (for some years now, World Peace Day) (Luke 2:21)

The proper attitude for this Season is one of joyful anticipation, and then delight and gladness at the birth of the Lord. It is a time to recover within ourselves the purity and innocence of the infant we were once were. We cannot live that innocence all the rest of our lives, after all, we are no longer children and must put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). But that is not all – we can still have the influence of that cleanness, and indeed we should, for Our Lord Himself told us that we must become like little children (Matthew 18:13, where Our Lord said in a literally translation: “Amen, I say to you, if you do not change and become like little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens.”)

My conclusion from this is that the Season of the Nativity is the ideal time to take this teaching of the Lord seriously, by joining with all our mind and spirit into the birth of the Lord, and His purity, goodness, simplicity, and innocence. It is a time to put away sins and the sinning heart, and to change our mind from one which approves of, or contemplates with equanimity those ways of the world which are corrupt and contrary to His will and commandments.

Read more here.

11.06.2020

The Consecration and Renewal of the Church


I was amazed at the feat that Christ prepared for the blessed Church, his bride. As I entered I saw prophets, martyrs, and the just; the apostles with the priests, then Baptism and the Cross. On the altar there was placed Christ’s own Body and His Blood for the pardon of all sins,” from the qolo hymn, Maronite liturgy for the Feast of the Consecration and Renewal of the Church



By Fr. Yuhanna Azize

“I was amazed at the feat that Christ prepared for the blessed Church, his bride. As I entered I saw prophets, martyrs, and the just; the apostles with the priests, then Baptism and the Cross. On the altar there was placed Christ’s own Body and His Blood for the pardon of all sins,” from the qolo hymn, Maronite liturgy for the Feast of the Consecration and Renewal of the Church

The Maronite liturgical year is inaugurated by the Feast of the Consecration and the Renewal of

the Church. If there are two Sundays available before Zechariah Sunday, then it is observed as

two feasts. On one Sunday, the Consecration, and on the next, the Renewal of the Church. By

opening the liturgical year, this feast is in effect the New Years Day of the Church. It shows us,

also, that church is our spiritual home. The liturgical year ends with the Season of the Holy Cross, when we solemnly remember the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. In that period, the Gospel readings remind us of the Lord’s prophecies of the final days, and of the tribulations and persecutions which will come. These readings always strike us with an impact, for they remind us that even if we are not alive when the end of human history comes, yet we each of us face our own deaths, and what will be true of all the world will also be true of us, in a small personal way. As the first Season of the Liturgical Year, before the Announcement of the Lord’s birth, baptism, teaching, life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension, these feasts show that the work of the sanctification of the Church and her children is the work of all the year. This feast encapsulates what all the feasts of the year mean and point to: God’s mysterious plan of salvation through Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the diving off point, so to speak, for our engaging once more in the unfolding history of the redemption.

We can also think of this feast as being like a wedding anniversary: each year we are reminded

of the new covenant between God and humanity, signed with the blood of the Lamb. So too, each anniversary, the bride and groom are reminded of their covenant solemnized at the altar of God.

Read more here