ON THE DAY BEFORE the Great Fast began we heard these words from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “Now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11,12). They announced for us the time of preparation for entry into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection at Pascha.
Today we hear these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5). The time of preparation is over for those who have been observing the Fast. We are beginning to celebrate the mystery of Pascha.
In the Byzantine tradition there is no more joyful celebration of this mystery than when it coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation. The Greeks call this Kyriopascha (the Lord’s Pascha) and see it as a proclamation of all that Christ is for us and for all creation. When Holy Friday or Saturday fall on March 25 Greek Churches often move the Annunciation to Pascha to maximize the joy of these days. Slavic Churches generally do not move the Annunciation, celebrating it on whatever day it falls. When Holy Friday and March 25 coincide the Annunciation is celebrated with a Divine Liturgy, the only time when the Liturgy is served on Holy Friday.
A Kyriopascha occurs in Churches that follow the Julian or “Old” Calendar and in Churches that keep the Gregorian or “New” Calendar. It never occurs in Churches that observe the Revised Julian or Mixed Calendar as many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches do today. On this calendar Pascha always comes after March 25.
Western Christians, whose Churches are accustomed to move the Annunciation when it coincides with Pascha, often find this double celebration jarring. It was not always so. When these feasts came together in 1608 the English poet John Donne observed, “Today my soul eats twice” (“Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day”). This two-course feast is especially helpful for us as we reflect on Christ’s mission in our world.
Christ Transfigures Us and Our World
The Feast of the Annunciation celebrates the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Gospel of Luke tells how the angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin with this news: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God… for with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:31-37).
The Gospel thus proclaims and this feast celebrates that Jesus is both Son of God by nature and son of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit who came upon her. He is, as the early Councils would later confess, both fully God and also fully man: the ultimate presence of God in the world He created.
The Eastern Fathers taught that, by taking up our fallen human nature in Himself, the eternal Word raised it up and transformed it back to what it was meant to be from the beginning: the image of God. He truly became like us in all things except sin, uniting His divinity with our humanity.
The following sticheron from the vespers of the Annunciation expresses this teaching poetically: “Today is the announcement of joy, today is the virginal festivity, 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!”
By taking our lesser nature, the divine Son of God transformed it – humanity became holy because it was the dwelling place of God. Human nature became like the chalice used to hold the blood of Christ: holy because of what it contained.
This teaching is expressed even more forcefully at orthros: “The eternal mystery is revealed today. The Son of God becomes the Son of man. By sharing in what is imperfect, He makes me share in what is perfect. Of old, Adam disobeyed: he wished to become God, but failed. Now God becomes man that He might make Adam god. Let the creation rejoice, let nature sing with joy: for the Archangel stands before the Virgin with great respect and greets her with good news that takes away our sorrow. O our God, who took flesh in Your merciful compassion, glory to You!
This concept would be extended in our remembrance of Christ’s baptism on the Feast of the Theophany. Christ enters into the Jordan, not to be sanctified by its waters but to sanctify them by His presence in them. He transfigures not only human nature but all creation by being present in it. As we sing on that feast, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified, and the Jordan is parted in two. It holds back the streams of its own waters, seeing the Master being baptized.”
Christ Transforms Death
The mystery of the incarnation is only fully understood, the Scriptures teach, in light of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read that God became man in order to die and transform death. “Since, therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
To escape or at least postpone death people attach themselves to all kinds of empty behavior, pursuing wealth or pleasure, enslaving themselves to what they think is the “good life.” Perhaps some modern symbols of this “lifelong bondage” might be the mortgage or credit card debt which people assume in order to own things which only serve to own them. Others might be the addictions to which some people are bound in their desire to be freed if only for a time from the living death of a meaningless or degrading life.
Becoming man meant that Jesus would die; that is what happens. But because He was the eternal Word of God death would not transform Him; He would transform death. As a result of sin, death separated us from God. Christ transforms death so that, freed from the embrace of sin, it could be for many the gateway to God.
The Son of God, who assumed our nature at the Annunciation, did so in order to destroy the power of death by His own death and Resurrection. From the first the Infant Jesus is described in terms of His mission for our salvation. As Joseph was told by the Lord’s angel, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The mystery of the Incarnation begins with the death and resurrection of Christ already in view. The cross and tomb are life-giving because Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. Celebrating both mysteries together doubles our joy.