The Icon of the Annunciation

A Meditation

by Mary Grace Ritchey

16th century missionary art from Mexico, Private collector, used with permissions - all rights reserved

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The Troparion: Today is the Fontainhead of our salvation and the revelation of the mystery that was planed from all eternity: the Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin and Gabriel announces this grace. Let us join him in crying out to the Mother of God: “Hail, O Woman full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
The Kontakion: We are your own, O Mother of God!
To you, protectress and leader, our songs of victory!
To you who saved us from danger, our hymn of thanksgiving!
In your invincible might, deliver us from all danger that we may sing to you:
“Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!”
Scriptural Readings of Vespers: Genesis 28: 10-17
Ezechiel 43: 27 to 44: 4
Exodus 3: 1-8
Scriptural Readings at Divine Liturgy Epistle Hebrews 2: 11-18
Gospel Luke 1: 24-38
Joy of the Incarnation of Christ and the beginning of our salvation is written in the icon of the Annuciation through the vivid colors of the icon, the urgency of the figure of the Archangel Gabrielle, the gesture of perplexity and prudence shown in the outward palm of the Virgin who after questioning the angel bows her head in acceptance and submission to the will of God. Traditionally the icon stresses these three moments: the fear of the greeting of the Virgin which is shown in the dropping of the spool of purple yarn Mary is spinning; her prudence in the encounter which is contrasted with the sin of pride when Eve accepts without questioning the temptation of Satan; and finally the submission to God’s will in word and deed shown in the bowing of the head and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit of the Mother of God. The circle with rays coming from it toward the Virgin and in some icons the additional circle with the dove is meant to convey the action of the Father through the Holy Spirit in the incarnation of the Son of God within the holy Virgin Mary who is “full of grace” rather than the stripping of grace through the imprudence of Eve.

The first reading of Vespers from Genesis is the story of the vision of Jacob in which he perceives a ladder reaching from heaven to earth with angels descending and ascending. Mary is spoken of as the “ladder” by which heaven and earth are joined in the chants of vespers: “Let the whole creation rejoice and sing a hymn of praise… today heaven is joined to earth, Adam is renewed and Eve released from sorrow; the dwelling place, our own substance, has become God’s temple because a portion of it has been deified…The plan has been made by agreement, an agreement by which and through which we have been saved…Christ, our God and Saviour takes our nature in order to be united to us.” (BDW p.661)

The reading from Ezechiel is often used in feasts of Mary as a testimony to her virginity before during and after the birth of Christ. On the icon the stars placed on both of her shoulders and on top of her head symbolizes her ever-virgin life: “And the Lord said to me: This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened and no man shall pass through it: because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it. And it shall be shut…and behold the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.’ (Ezechiel 44: 3-4) She remained God’s undefiled, deified temple.

The reading from Exodus reflects on Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God. This image is also applied to Mary for our God is a burning fire who does not consume the holy substance by which God became man in the incarnation, the theme of the icon of the Annunciation.

The Archangel Gabriel is shown in swift motion, legs apart as if running intently to carry the message from God to the Virgin. The Staff held in his hand is the staff of a messenger. The Greek word “Kontakion” literally means “from a pole”. A scroll was rolled up and placed inside a pole and sent by a messenger. The word “angel” means, “messenger” and in this Icon the Archangel carries the pole, which carries a message from God.

The Theotokos is shown in the icon either standing or sitting involved with her work usually with a pedestal under her feet. In some icons the focus of both the Theotokos and the angel is upward toward the circle and ray of light. The upturned face of the angel directs the Theotokos to the source of his message but his stance is forward toward the Theotokos who is the main focus of the icon. The pedestal shows honor toward the person and is used in icons of Christ, the Theotokos, John the Baptist and the Presentation icon with the figure of Simeon.

The first reading of the Divine Liturgy is the Epistle from Hebrews which focuses on the theme of re-creation of humanity in the likeness of the creator through the sanctification of the God-bearer: ” For both he who sanctifies and they who are sanctified are all from one. From which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren…that through death he might destroy him who had the empire of death…Wherefore it was right that he should in all things be made like unto his brethren, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. “

The Gospel reading is the story of the Annunciation and the content of the icon. Mary is greeted as on “highly favored” and “blessed” among women. This graciousness of God allowed Mary to question the angel because of her wisdom and self-control. This can be compared to Zachary who questions and in struck dumb. Following Gabriel’s reply that by the power of the Holy Spirit the Holy One to be born is the Son of God and the revelation of the miracle of pregnancy of her elder cousin, Elizabeth, replies her assent “Behold the handmaid of God…” The content of this Scripture is iconographically written in the catacomb of Pricilla, which is attributed to the second century. ( THE MEANING OF ICONS, by Ouspensky and Lossky, p. 173). The early icons did not show angels with wings nor haloes but otherwise the content of the Gospel of Luke is written in this icon.

The Church honors Archangel Gabriel on March 26.