25 March 2010

Ave, gratia plena!

At the Carthusian hour of Matins for the Solemnity of the Annunciation, twelve Readings are proclaimed. Eight of those twelve Readings are from Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus. Here’s what the monks heard from the saint of Neocæsarea who is sometimes referred to as Gregory the Wonderworker.

It is our duty to present to God, like sacrifices, all the festivals and first of all, the Annunciation to the holy Mother of God, when the angel called her ‘full of grace’! First of all wisdom and saving doctrine in the New Testament was this salutation, ‘Hail, full of grace’ (Luke 1:28) conveyed to us from the Father of lights. And this address, ‘Hail, full of grace’, God embraces the whole of human nature. ‘Hail, full of grace’ in the holy conception and in the glorious pregnancy, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. See, then, dearly beloved, how the Lord has conferred upon us everywhere, and indivisibly, the joy which transcends all human thought.

While on earth, Mary was in possession of the incorruptible citizenship, and walked as such in all manner of virtues, and lived a life more excellent than the common human standard. The Word of the Eternal Father wanted to assume the flesh, and endue the perfect Man from her. Through the flesh sin entered into the world and death by sin. But the Incarnation condemns sin in the burying of the holy body of Mary; thus the tempter of sin is overcome. With the Incarnation, therewith also the beginning of the resurrection might be exhibited, and life eternal instituted in the world, and fellowship established for men with God the Father. Who will be able to explain the incomprehensible mystery? What shall we state and what shall be left in silence?

Gabriel was sent to the holy Virgin; the incorporeal was dispatched to her who in the body pursued the incorruptible conversation, and lived in purity and in virtues. And when he came to her, he first addressed her with the salutation, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’. For you do what is worthy of joy indeed, since you have put on the vesture of purity, and are girt with the cincture of prudence. ‘Hail, full of grace’, for to your lot it has fallen to be the vehicle of celestial joy. ‘Hail, full of grace’, for through you joy is decreed for the whole creation, and the human race receives again by you its pristine dignity. ‘Hail, full of grace’, for in your arms the Creator of all things shall be carried. Mary was perplexed by these words; for she was inexperienced in all the addresses of men, and welcomed quiet, as the Mother of prudence and purity. And since she is a pure and Immaculate and stainless image herself, she shrank not in terror from the angelic apparition, like most of the prophets, as indeed true virginity has a kind of affinity and equality with the angels.

Then again the archangel addressed her with the announcement of a joy: ‘Fear not, Mary, for you have found favour with God’ (Luke 1:30). These words not only give you understanding that there is nothing to fear, but shows you the very key to the absence of all cause for fear. For through me all the heavenly powers hail you, the holy Virgin: rather, He Himself, Who is Lord of all the heavenly powers and of all creation, has selected you because you are holy and adorned with grace. Through your holy, chaste, pure, and undefiled womb the enlightening Pearl comes forth for the salvation of all the world. You are the most honourable, the purest, and the most pious of all human creatures. You have a mind whiter than the snow, and a body of pure gold refined in the crucible. Ezekiel saw you, which he has described in these terms: ‘And the likeness of the throne above them was as the appearance of a sapphire-stone: and above the throne it was as the likeness of a human, and as the appearance of amber; and within it there was, as it were, the likeness of fire round about’ (Ezekiel 1:26-27). Clearly, then, did the prophet behold in type Him Who was born of the holy virgin, whom you, O holy Virgin, would have had no strength to bear, had you not beamed forth for that time with all that is glorious and virtuous.

And with what words of praise, then, shall we describe her Virgin-dignity? With what indications and proclamations of praise shall we celebrate her stainless figure? With what spiritual song or word shall we honour her who is most glorious among the angels? She is planted in the house of God like a fruitful olive that the Holy Spirit overshadowed; and by her means are we called sons and heirs of the Kingdom of Christ. She is the ever-blooming paradise of incorruptibility, wherein is planted the tree that gives life, and that furnishes to all the fruits of immortality. Mary is the boast and glory of virgins, and the exultation of mothers. She is the sure support of the believing, and the helper of the pious. She is the vesture of light, and the domicile of virtue. She is the ever-flowing fountain, wherein the water of life sprang and produced the Lord's Incarnate manifestation. Mary is the monument of righteousness; and all who become lovers of her, and set their affections on virgin-like ingenuousness and purity, shall enjoy the grace of angels.

All who worthily observe the festival of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, acquire as their recompense the fuller interest in the message, ‘Hail, full of grace’! It is our duty, therefore, to keep this feast, seeing that it has filled the whole world with joy and gladness. And let us keep it with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, full of grace, has become for us the principle of all good, the admirable plan of salvation, the divine and excellent teaching of the Saviour. Thence rise the rays of the light of understanding upon us. Thence spring for us the fruits of wisdom and immortality, sending forth the clear pure streams of piety. Thence come to us the brilliant splendours of the treasures of divine knowledge. ‘For this is life eternal, that we may know the true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent’ (John 17:3).

God in His goodness, when He saw the creature He Himself had formed now held by the power of death, did not turn away finally from him whom He had made in His own Image, but visited him in each generation. Manifesting Himself first of all among the patriarchs, and then proclaiming Himself in the law, and presenting the likeness of Himself in the prophets, He announced His plan of salvation. When the fullness of time had come for His glorious appearing, He sent beforehand the archangel Gabriel to bear the glad tidings to the Virgin Mary. And he came down from the ineffable powers above to the holy Virgin, and addressed her first of all with the salutation, ‘Hail, full of grace’. And when this word reached her, in the very moment of her hearing it, the Holy Spirit entered into the undefiled temple of the Virgin, and her spirit and her body were sanctified together. And nature stood opposite, and natural intercourse at a distance, beholding with amazement the Lord of nature, in a manner contrary to nature, or rather above nature, doing a miraculous work in the body. By the very weapons which the devil strove against us, Christ also saved us, taking to Himself our body, subject to suffering, in order that He might impart the greater grace to the being who was deficient in it. ‘And where sin abounded, grace did much more abound’ (Romans 5:20).

Your praise, O most holy Virgin, surpasses all praise, because God took Flesh and was born Man of you. To you every creature, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, gives you the offering of honour. You are indeed worthy of the throne of the cherubim and you shine as the very brightness of light in the high places of the kingdoms of intelligence. The Father, Who is without beginning, and Whose power you had overshadowing you, is glorified. The Son is worshipped, whom you bore according to the flesh; and where the Holy Spirit is praised, Who effected in your womb the generation of the mighty King. Through you, O full of grace, is the holy and consubstantial Trinity known throughout the world. Together with yourself, deem us also worthy to be made partakers of your perfect grace in Jesus Christ our Lord, with Whom, and with the Holy Spirit, be glory to the Father, now and ever, and unto the ages of the ages. Amen.