Preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church March 26, 2023 on the occasion of the installation of the icon of the Annunciation.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit
My hope is that the icon that has brought us to together can provides us with the means finding the Gospel for us in these reading and the spirit that will allow us to enter into the contemplation of the death and resurrection of Christ that is shortly upon us. It might seem gratuitous, but Annunciation icon is not a peripheral icon, but a central icon, being a Festal Icon, which are displayed in the upper story of the Iconostasis, which divides the nave of an orthodox church from the sanctuary and is repeated on the Holy Doors that open the sanctuary to the nave. In the Western Church it is expressed in the Angelus, rung three times a day, inviting one to prayer the Angle Gabriel’s greeting to Mary: “Hail Mary.”
To begin with, I would refer you to the upper lefthand corner of the icon. There you will see a cloud of dark unknowing, which send a ray, marked with a dove, obliquely across the icon to the breast of Mary of Nazareth. It represents the movement to the Holy Spirit. The movement of the Holy Spirit is precisely what is at stake in Ezekiel’s vision. The spirit, rauch, in Hebrew, transported Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones. There Ezekiel is directed to prophesize “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath, ruach, to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath, ruach, in you, and you shall live.” The play with Hebrew word ruach, which means wind, breath and spirit, recalls the creation story. There the ruach hovers over the chaos. There God forms Adam from red clay and breaths life into him. Spirit is also what is at the heart of the wisdom of Paul. Chapter 8 begins with thematic statement “The law of the Spirit of the life in Christ has set you free.” In the portion of that chapter, we have read today, the agency of the Holy Spirit is declared to be the essential mover of the resurrection: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
The line, that traces the movement of the Spirit. connects the prophet’s vision and Paul’s Wisdom and, on its way, it passes through the bringing of the man, Lazarus, back from the dead. (I cannot pretend to say more of the what and the how. But something happened that day in the Spirit which struck those present to their core. Step back and look again and you will see that that this line originates in the creation and ends in the resurrection and on its way, it passes through the heart of every one of us.
Now I would direct you attention to the figure on the right side of the icon, Mary of Nazareth. She sits in the posture of prayer.
Her primary garment is not the blue of heaven as in Western art, but the red of the earth as it always is in the in Eastern art. The Hebrew word for red is adam. The word for red dust is Adamah. From that dust the first human, hadam, was formed. Mary’s under garment is green, the color of growth, and only in her hairline is a touch of blue signifying her share of divinity that indwells us. Curiously in the East she is referred as the Theotokos, the God bearer, and not as in the West, the Ever Virgin. She sits firmly in context of our humanity and her “lack of sin,” is the lack of separation from humanity and, more particularly, from Israel. The long line of history that passes through Isreal equips her with the capacity for a “Yes.”
Her prayer is an internal dialogue. It arises as a response to the call of indwelling Word of God. The same may be said of you and me. It is there because, as we read in John, “The Word was coming into the world and the world knew him not, but as many as received him, he gave power to become children of God.” Wherever the Word is, the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and says to the Word, “You are my beloved, my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Simultaneously this same Spirit returns to the Father with the words of the Son: “I delight to do your will.” In this archetypal structure of prayer, the movement of word and spirit anticipate of the experience of the Christ at his baptism and at his Transfiguration.
This is where I need your help. I want to look into your own interior prayer and see if it is not essentially dialogical. See if the origin of your interior dialogue is not your initiative, but rather your response to something which has invited your response: “Ask and you shall receive.” And then recall, if not always to same degree, that what appears to be a purely mental activity has had some kind of physical effect on you. You might have reported, “my heart was warmed.” Given the distractions that plagues our prayer, it is likely that this physical effect has not been all that deep or prolonged. Even so, I dare say we felt something pass through us. The movement of the Holy Spirit plays us as if we were a string and she was a bow drawn across us.
It is important for my argument to place Mary’s interior pray life, in the context of our own. Once we have grasped its commonality with our own, we can go on to imagine its exceptional outcome. Imagine that the warming is so deep, and the resonance is so sympathetic that the whole body is engaged. I cannot pretend to say more about what or how, except to confess, “conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Now we can step back from the icon, as we do I ask you to take note of a detail. In Mary’s lap is a hank of wool dyed red and shaped like a cross. From it a thread ascends to her raise right hand and from it the thin red thread descends. Apparently, her state of prayer has been preceded by the labor of spinning thread. It is red, adam, the color of blood, dam, and it foreshadows the blood of her son. The thread falls below to where it raps about a spindle, and then from the spindle it continues down into a chalice. This chalice is the holy grail from which we ourselves partake. The thread ties us to the holy mystery of the movement of the Trinity which creates and ends the world, and in between makes for our salvation. Let us confess it: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit.”