Melkite Greek Catholic Church
ST LUKE'S GOSPEL is the basis of the Great Feast of the Annunciation which our Church celebrates on March 25. In its first chapter this Scripture describes the appearance of the angel Gabriel – one of the few angels actually named in Scripture – to the Virgin Mary. For this story to be factual, its ultimate source could only be the Holy Virgin herself as there were no other eye-witnesses.

According to a tradition documented in the first centuries, “Luke, was born in Antioch, by profession, was a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul's] martyrdom” (from a second-century prologue to the Gospel). He was thought to be either a Hellenized Jew or a converted pagan writing in Greek for a Greek-speaking community. This explains the Greek expression used by the angel in the Annunciation narrative, a phrase which has become part of the prayer life of Christians all over the world: “Hail, full of grace.”

The Angel’s Greeting

In the Gospel the angel greets Mary with the Greek word chaire rather than with the Hebrew/Aramaic salutation, shalom. While each of these expressions has a different literal meaning, both are idiomatic forms of greeting, expressing good will between people. Some translations use the literal meaning, Rejoice, while others use the idiomatic meaning, Hail.

The angel describes Mary in Luke 1:28 as kecharitomeni, another word which has proven difficult to translate. When St Jerome rendered the Bible into Latin he translated this term literally as gratia plena, full of grace. This would create a problem centuries later when Western theology began using gratia as a technical term to mean the holiness bestowed by God. They interpreted Gabriel’s greeting as an indication that Mary was immaculately conceived.

During the Reformation many Protestants rejected both this doctrine and St Jerome’s translation, pointing to the angel Gabriel’s own explanation of the term in v. 30: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor [charis] with God.” Modern Catholic translations of Luke generally favor this interpretation as well, rendering kecharitomeni as “highly favored one.”

The Angel’s Greeting in Prayer

One effect of the Council of Ephesus (431), which affirmed the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, was an increase of devotion to her. St Theodotos of Ancyra, a Father of that council, left us a praise of Mary based on Gabriel’s greeting:

Hail, our desirable gladness;
Hail, O rejoicing of the churches;
Hail, O name that breathes out sweetness;
Hail, face that radiates divinity and grace;
Hail, most venerable memory;
Hail, O spiritual and saving fleece;
Hail, O Mother of unsetting splendor, filled with light;
Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
Hail, most limpid font of the life-giving wave;
Hail, new Mother, workshop of the birth.
Hail, ineffable mother of a mystery beyond understanding;
Hail, new book of a new Scripture, of which, as Isaiah tells,
angels and men are faithful witnesses;
Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying ointment;
Hail, best trader of the coin of virginity;
Hail, creature embracing your Creator;
Hail, little container containing the Uncontainable
(Homily 4:3).

Later poets would use the same literary device in composing Akathists to the Theotokos and, later, to numerous saints. It is also found in the Greek and Syriac hymns of Severus of Antioch (c. 459-538), Andrew of Crete (650-740), and John of Damascus (c. 675-749).

Appropriately enough, the same device is used in our services on the feast of the Annunciation. Several stichera at vespers are extended forms of the Mary-Gabriel dialogue in the Gospel, such as these:

“Gabriel stood before you, O Maiden, revealing the pre-eternal counsel, greeting you and exclaiming: ‘Rejoice, O earth unsown! Rejoice, O bush unburnt! Rejoice, O depth hard to fathom! Rejoice, O bridge leading to the heavens and lofty ladder, which Jacob beheld! Rejoice, O divine jar of Manna! Rejoice, annulment of the curse! Rejoice, restoration of Adam: the Lord is with you!’”

“You appear to me as a man,” the incorrupt Maiden said to the supreme commander; “yet how is it that you announce words which are beyond man? For you have said that God is with me, and that He will dwell in my womb. Tell me, how shall I become so spacious a dwelling and a place of sanctity which surpasses the cherubim? Deceive me no more with falsehood, for I have not known lust, I have not partaken of marriage, how then shall I give birth to a Child?”

The Angelic Salutation

The most popular prayer to the Theotokos based on Luke is undoubtedly the “Hail, Mary” which exists in different versions in the Greek, Latin and Syriac traditions. In each of these versions Gabriel’s greeting (Lk 1:28) I is joined to Elizabeth’s greeting when she was visited by Mary after the Annunciation (Luke 1:42).

In the Byzantine tradition the text is this: “Hail, O Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have given birth to the Savior of our souls.” This troparion is sung at vespers every day during the Great Fast and at other times during the year. It is also used by many people as part of their daily rule of prayer.

The oldest version in the West is that of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) who used the following text as the offertory chant on the Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The second part of the prayer developed after the twelfth century and was fixed by Pope Pius V in 1568.

The only other tradition which uses this prayer is that of the Syriac Church which has a slightly different version in its book of the hours: “Hail Virgin Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the Fruit of your womb, Our Lord. O Saint Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at all times, and at the hour of our death. Amen.” It is often added to the concluding prayers of the daily office, particularly in India.

The Importance of the Annunciation

The meaning of this feast is well expressed in the hymns of vespers and orthros, such as this one sung at the aposticha of vespers.

Today is the joy of the annunciation, the triumph of virginity! Those below are united to those above! Adam is restored, and Eve is freed from her primal grief. The tabernacle of our nature, mingled with divinity, has become the temple of God! O the mystery! Incomprehensible is the image of His abasement, and ineffable the richness of His goodness! An angel serves the miracle, and the Virgin's womb receives the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent down from on high, and the Father is well pleased. The covenant is enacted by common consent. Saved thereby, let us cry out together with Gabriel to the Virgin: Rejoice, O joyous one, from whom Christ God, our salvation, is come, assuming our nature and elevating it in Himself! Entreat Him, that our souls be saved.
THERE ARE TWO ICONS put forth for veneration this Sunday in those Byzantine churches which follow the Gregorian calendar. Because it is March 25, we are celebrating the Great Feast of the Annunciation. Because it is Palm Sunday, we are commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a few days before His passion.

Both of these occasions are among our Church’s greatest feasts, each pointing to a different moment in the life of Christ. On the Annunciation we reflect on the conception of the Word of God as a man in the womb of the Theotokos. On Palm Sunday we join in welcoming Him as the One who comes in the name of the Lord, the Savior. These seem to be very different aspects of the mystery of Christ; on both occasions, however, He was glorified with the same title, Son of David.

Why “Son of David”?

David, the son of Jesse, was the second king of the united kingdom of Israel, reigning at c. 1000 bc. The Old Testament describes his era as the golden age of Israel. Variant versions of his life are found in 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles and the Book of Ruth. As king, David conquered Jerusalem and established it as his capital, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the city. David wished to build a temple there to house the Ark, but the prophet Nathan related to him a message he had received from God: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son” (2 Samuel 7:12-14).

David’s son Solomon did, indeed, succeed his father as king and built the first temple in Jerusalem, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy. After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam became king, but he could not hold the nation together. The northern tribes broke away and formed their own kingdom and so the second part of the prophecy – “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” – was not fulfilled in him.

When the independence of these kingdoms was threatened, the prophets foretold that a “son of David” would establish a lasting kingdom. As Isaiah foretold repeatedly:
- “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this”;
- “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”;
- “In mercy the throne will be established; and One will sit on it in truth, in the tabernacle of David, judging and seeking justice and hastening righteousness” (Isaiah 9:7, 11:1, and 16:5).

Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah foretold: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth” (Jeremiah 23:5). These and similar prophecies gave rise to the belief among many Jews that the Messiah would be, in fact, of David’s lineage.

Jesus as Son of David

By the first century ad, it was commonly taught that the Messiah would be this “son of David” and, therefore, from Bethlehem. As we read in John’s Gospel, some who heard Jesus speak “…said ‘Truly this is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some said, ‘Will the Christ come out of Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’ So, there was a division among the people because of Him” (John 7:40-43).

In their teaching about Jesus, the Gospels all present Him as the Son of David. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus which opens with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

When the magi came seeking the One whose birth they had read of in the stars, they were sent to Bethlehem as the prophet Micah had foretold, “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The Ruler to come out of Bethlehem was presumed to be the Son of David.

The greatest witness to Jesus’ role as Son of David is the Archangel Gabriel. In the Gospel story of the Annunciation, Gabriel says of Jesus that “…the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32. 33). The Lord Jesus is clearly depicted here as fulfilling the words of the prophets.

Throughout His ministry people referred to Jesus as the Son of David. The most graphic representation of their belief came when Jesus was escorted into Jerusalem as a king while people cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Thus. the proclamation which the angel made at Jesus’ conception is repeated by His people as He approached His passion.

The final allusion to the Lord Jesus as Son of David is found in the Book of Revelation, the last New Testament book, which speaks of the Lord’s return in glory. In one of the author John’s last visions, Christ proclaims, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last… I am the Root and the Offspring of David” (Revelations 22: 13, 16). Christ is not only the descendant of David, but his Creator (root) as well: a claim that only the eternal Word of God incarnate could make.

Fully Us, Fully Other

In many societies, it is customary to take one’s paternal name as part of one’s own. This expresses a person’s roots in a particular family or clan. If a person’s ancestor was of some repute, he would emphasize the connection by laying claim to his name in particular. It is in this sense that an angel addresses St Joseph as son of David (see Matthew 1:20). Calling the Lord Jesus “son of David” says that He is a part of human history in this particular family.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both include genealogies which expressly connect Jesus to Abraham (Mt) and Adam (Lk) as well as David. Emphasizing these human connections, the Gospels indicate that the Lord Jesus is truly one of us, fully man, in order to transform us, as later theology would express it: “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 essence, has become God’s temple because a portion of it has been deified!” (Vespers for the Annunciation)

The Messianic title “Son of David” also points to Christ’s role as our Creator and Redeemer. As Messiah, the Son of David is unique, completely different from His creation. In this sense, calling Jesus Son of David emphasizes how different Jesus is from us. The Son of David is like no other. Thus on Palm Sunday we sing, “He who sits upon the throne of the Cherubim, for our sake sits upon a foal. Coming to His voluntary Passion, today He hears the children cry, Hosanna!, while the crowd replies, "O Son of David, make haste to save those whom You have created, blessed Jesus, since You have come for this reason: that we may know Your glory!"
ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH RAYA of blessed memory tells how, as a student, he visited his village priest during school breaks. On one visit he noted the Gospel book in the priest’s icon corner opened to the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Returning on his next break a few months later, the young Joseph saw the Gospel opened to the same page. When Joseph asked the priest why he kept reading the same story, the priest answered that one could read this passage every day and never exhaust its meaning. The Gospel passage tells of Gabriel’s message from God to the Virgin Mary and her response, “Let it be so according to your word.” With her acceptance the eternal Word of God was conceived in her womb. It has been said that this event, the conception of Christ, even more than His birth changed the course of the planet. When the Word of God assumed human nature it was not at His birth, but at His conception, when He took our nature in the form of a fetus in the womb of the Theotokos. His birth revealed the mystery of His incarnation to the world but it was at His conception that this mystery was accomplished.

Annunciation: the First Feast?

Much has been written about dating the birth of Christ. In the twelfth century, the Syriac theologian Dionysius Bar-Salibi wrote that December 25 was established in the West as the feast of Christ’s Nativity to coincide with the pagan Roman celebration of the Invincible Sun. This concept became popular in the West particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More recent scholarship has shown that Christmas had been observed for years before Emperor Aurelian established the pagan festival in AD 274. It was assumed that the date of the Annunciation was set in relation to the date of Christmas. Today it is recognized that the opposite was more likely the case. The ancient world put a great emphasis on Coherence: the underlying unity of related things. Already by AD 200 Christians were stressing that Christ suffered His passion on the same day He was conceived. His coming and the purpose of His coming were facets of the same mystery. Tertullian of Carthage taught that the 24th of the Hebrew month Nisan (the day of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John) was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman calendar. Approximately 200 years later St Augustine of Hippo, wrote in his treatise On the Trinity that Jesus “…is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin in which He was conceived, where no mortal was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, where no one was ever laid, neither before Him nor since.” Like so many aspects of traditional Christian practice, this notion of coherence is also reflected in Jewish thought. Rabbis in the second century AD are recorded as teaching that the month of Nisan was the time of God’s decisive interventions in the world. “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born… and in Nisan they will be redeemed in time to come.” Their teaching that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year would certainly resound with St Athanasius who wrote, “The renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word who made it in the beginning” (On the Incarnation, 1). Thus early Christians and their Jewish contemporaries used the calendar to express a spiritual teaching: the unity of God’s plan for the human race. God does not work in our chronological time. There are no calendars in heaven. God’s work is one; He creates and renews and refreshes His creation in one eternal act, in what we might cal “really real” time. In stressing the unity of Christ’s incarnation and His passion these Christian thinkers were proclaiming the oneness of God’s plan for our salvation. While the rabbis looked for redemption yet to come, Christians saw it effected in the incarnation of the eternal Word. “What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind so that through it we might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own person because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, who could recreate man after the Image” (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 13).

Two Contemporary Developments

The mystery we celebrate on March 25 has been recognized as an important milestone for two very different groups of people. Many pro-life parents throughout the world have begun to celebrate their children’s First Days, nine months before their birthdays. In this they are rejecting the secular culture’s contention that a fetus is a “part” of the mother which only “becomes human” later in its development. Christian pro-lifers accordingly keep the Feast of the Annunciation as the First Day of the Incarnate Word. They encourage its observance as a sign that the Christian community recognize and honor the conception and prenatal life of the Lord. If believers do not celebrate the conception of One who was foretold and announced by an angel, they reason, why should the world esteem the coming of its unwanted children? In 1998 Argentina became the first nation to commemorate March 25 as the Day of the Unborn Child. Since then many other countries with a Hispanic culture (e,g, Central and South America, the Philippines) have done the same. In Spain the day was given a wider focus. Their International Day for Life encourages recognition of the dangers of euthanasia, embryo experimentation and other challenges to the sanctity of life. In the United States groups including the American Life League, the Knights of Columbus and Priests for Life have prompted observance and public recognition of this day. In 2010 Christians and Muslims in Lebanon responded to the hostilities between these groups in other countries by joining forces to declare March 25 a national holiday celebrating the place of the Virgin Mary in Christianity and in Islam. The initiative for this Islamic-Christian Day came from a Sunni Sheikh, Mohammed Nokkari, and an inter-faith group centered in the College of Notre Dame in Jamhour, near Beirut. Their annual gathering on the Annunciation, “Together Around Our Lady Mary,” led to civic recognition on the national and local level. In Beirut the plaza in front of the National Museum has been designated the “place de Marie,” featuring a stylized sculpture of the Virgin surrounded by a crescent, the international symbol of Islam. The Virgin Mary is mentioned 36 times in the Koran which teaches that the Lord Jesus was born of a Virgin, whom they call “our Lady Mary,” preferred by God above all the women in creation.

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