St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Feast of the Annunciation

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, March 25, 2007

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The words of the archangel Gabriel to Mary are rich with meaning for us. What does it mean to be “full of grace”?

It means that Mary was filled with the energy of God. Holy Tradition teaches that Mary was prepared to be a servant of God. She was raised in the Temple, not an unusual thing for a young girl in those days. There she learned to live a life mindful of God in even the smallest details of life. She was taught as were all pious Jews to practice the presence of God. What else could be the purpose of all those laws?

She did not know what ultimately would be asked of her later on. How could she have known? How could a little girl at the age of 13 or 14, which she probably was when the archangel visited her, bear to hear such a message?

Scripture tells us that God will not give us more than we can bear. The Lord asked Mary to bear his Son when he knew she would be able to accept it. The request came when the time was right and in direct correlation to the grace that was already in her. She was “full of grace” before the Annunciation. By learning to cooperate with God in the small things of life she made herself able to cooperate with him in the very big thing we call the Incarnation.

These things do not occur in a vacuum. There was no magic involved nor was she forced to obey. The decision was hers to make, yes or no. This is one of the greatest mysteries, that God limits himself in accordance with our freedom. This makes her agreement even more amazing.

The Lord will not force us to walk the way of truth and liberation. He will not force us to walk the way of self-denial and compassion. He will not force us to walk the way of purification, enlightenment and theosis. The choice is ours and the power is in us to make it. It is a power granted to everyone born into this world. You want to know the will of God. Here it is: he wills that everyone be saved.

The question is: how much do we really want to do the will of God? If we desire it deeply, he will empower us to fulfill it. But do we desire to do the will of God with all our hearts? If not, then God must wait for us to get to the point where our hearts are open before he reveals to us what he wants us to do.

First, we must make a commitment to nurturing in ourselves a life that is “full of grace”. How do we do this: by stopping long enough to look deeply into our life. This we need to do often, not once or twice in a lifetime, but at least once or twice a day, consistently and faithfully. Self-knowledge is a gift that comes to those who seek it and is called in our spiritual tradition the greatest of all the gifts of the Spirit. This is the beginning of repentance.

The goal is to allow the heart to “settle like calm water” so that the face of Christ and our neighbor can reflect in the crystal, clear stillness. As long as there is turmoil within, we can expect the same without.

Secondly, we need to straighten out those things in us we find that are bent. When we look inside and find the things that are unhelpful (as St. Paul says), that cause pain to ourselves and others we must start to jettison them. There is much we can do to help ourselves. Then we can trust that God, seeing our desire and effort, will come to our aid. Where our thoughts, words and deeds are harmful to ourselves and others we need to commit to changing them. It is possible to make real progress in living as children of God by watching what we think, say and do. Mary’s training in the Temple most certainly have had this in mind. For example, we know that it is God’s will that we love one another. Can we not begin to root out of us everything opposed to love? This is what it means to purify one’s heart. St. Augustine warns that “if your eyes are clogged with sand, would you not have to wash them out before you can see the light.” “Take a look at your heart,” he continues. “Everything you see in it that might sadden God, remove. God wants to come to you.”

Thirdly, we must learn to guard our hearts from all that would keep us from the narrow path and pray. In the sixth homily attributed to Pseudo-Macarius we read, “This is the true foundation of prayer: keeping watch over your own thoughts and giving yourself to prayer in great tranquility, in great peace…push ahead towards God.”

Most of all we need to believe that God loves us and wants to come to us. God desires above all to reveal himself to us. Ask yourself this question, “How often in my 24 hour day do I consciously touch God?” He is there all the time. He can be touched at every moment. The only thing that is lacking is the effort needed which is really, in the end, very small. We are like Mary in this respect: we share the same nature and have the same potential. We differ only in that potential’s fulfillment.

God will probably not ask us to participate in anything as grand as the Incarnation, but there are many things left to do in this world and we are the ones called to do them.