‘Today is the crowning moment of our salvation, and the unfolding of the eternal. mystery’: this is what we sing today in the apolytikion, or troparion, for the Feast. Today—the ‘crowning moment’: the Greek κεφάλαιον comes from the word for ‘head’, κεφαλή, and can mean ‘chapter’, also derived from head (in this case the Latin caput), so it could mean the (first) chapter, as if we have just opened a new book, and there we find the beginning, which introduces us to what is to come. It can also mean the ‘main thing’: this is what it is all about. But there is also a sense that it is at the top, which is conveyed well by Fr Ephrem’s translation ‘crowning moment’. What is this new beginning, this new chapter, this ‘crowning moment’? The words of a young Jewish woman: ‘Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.’ This is indeed the crowning moment! Without Mary’s word of consent to what God is asking of her, there will be no Word made flesh, no Incarnation! This is both the crowning moment of our salvation, and also the turning-point: God becomes a human being, truly becomes human, with a mother, relations, ancestors. God inserts himself as a person into the world that he has created, and to do this he needs the consent, the acceptance, of a woman. One of the psalms speaks of ‘the beauty of Jacob, which I loved’ (τὴν καλλονὴν τοῦ Ἰακὼβ, ἥν ἠγάπησε): an expression that the Church uses in her hymns of the Mother of God: the beauty of Jacob, the whole of the ancient people of God, Israel, summed up in one Jewish girl, who simply says yes to God, in contrast to the half-hearted response that we read about in the Old Testament and has been all too characteristic of the response of God’s people, both before and after the Incarnation. It is this that we are asked to think of on this day, which always for us, using the New Calendar and keeping Easter according to the Old Calendar, falls during Lent. And it is most appropriate—though it has struck some as odd, to be called back from our journey to Good Friday and Easter, to think of the very beginning, the conception, of the one whose death and resurrection we are preparing for. It is most appropriate, for what we are trying to do during Lent is to say ‘yes’ to God: the whole point of all the praying, fasting, trying to repent and caring for others, as we make our way through Lent is to free ourselves to say ‘yes’ to God, ‘yes’ to what he wants of us. The texts of the songs we sing today as we celebrate the Archangel’s annunciation—‘announcement’—to Mary the Virgin speak of her as pure, ἁγνή, by which I think we should understand simplicity, the capacity to commit herself, her will, to God without distraction, without hesitation, without reservation—to be simply open to God. It is that simplicity we are seeking to regain during Lent; encountering it in a person, in the person, the woman, who accepted what must have been the deeply puzzling, but also utterly demanding, word of the archangel.
There is another thing. Mary, the Mother of God, has been praised and glorified by Christians ever since. As she herself realized: ‘for behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed’ (Luke 1: 48). And so we sing of her as ‘Greater in honour than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim’, and ‘In you, full of grace, all creation rejoices… from you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens’! Yet, we must never forget that she is a woman, a human being like us, exalted because she said ‘yes’ to God. We turn to her because she knows what it is to be human, even to be poor, misunderstood, spoken against. Now, in the middle of Lent, as it falls this year, the Church reminds us of one whose simplicity made possible the crowning moment, the turning-point, of our salvation. Most Holy Mother of God, save us!