We are so used to hearing the story of the Annunciation that we sometimes miss things in it. One of the things we miss is how secular is the setting for it. It is an understandable mistake—for us, the whole theme is religious. Any story about the Theotokos is religious; any story containing an angel is religious. When we read of Mary listening to the archangel Gabriel, we regard that moment as the essence of Religion. And by doing so, we miss its whole point.
It is easier to see the story for what it is when we re-insert back it into the flow of its parent narrative, the Gospel of St. Luke. That Gospel opens not with the Annunciation to Mary of Nazareth, but with the Annunciation to Zachariah of Jerusalem. When the archangel comes with the announcement of the impending birth of John the Forerunner, he comes not to his mother, Elizabeth (as might be expected), but to his father, Zachariah. And he comes when Zachariah is in Jerusalem, the holy city celebrated in psalm and prophecy, the city of divine destiny and promise. And not just in the holy city, but also in the holy Temple. And not just in the holy Temple, but actually performing his priestly work of burning incense in the Holy Place. The whole scene radiates with sanctity, history, solemnity, power, glory, and sacred privilege. In other words, with Religion. (Significantly, this annunciation in a religious setting does not end well; Zachariah disbelieves the message and is struck mute for his lack of faith.)
Juxtaposed to this is the annunciation to Mary, and the contrast is intentionally stark. The archangel comes to a woman, not a man (we must be grateful to feminism for the reminder), and to a young girl, not an old man. These details are significant in a culture which valued masculinity and age, and gave decidedly less honour to women and to the young. Also, the angel did not come to Jerusalem to find her (although doubtless as a devout Jewess she would have visited Jerusalem), but to Nazareth. Once again, the contrast is stark: Jerusalem is THE city for Jews, the city which luxuriated under the weight of destiny. Nazareth was nothing. In fact if you look up “Nazareth” in an Old Testament concordance, you discover that it is not there, not once mentioned in the sacred scriptures of the Old Testament. Nazareth lay within the disdained region of Galilee—“Galilee of the Gentiles”, people called it, pagan Galilee. And even other Galileans had not much time for Nazareth. Nathanael of Cana sceptically inquired, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). Ouch. That was Mary’s town. And when the angelic messenger found her there, Luke’s Gospel does not mention that she was doing anything especially pious, like saying her prayers. Some icons show her holding a spindle, that is, doing housework. The context is clearly secular, work-a-day, and ordinary.
Original perceptive readers of Luke’s text would be struck by this contrast. On the one hand, power, glory, history, honour, religion. On the other hand, weakness, obscurity, common life. A secular setting. And it is this secular setting that God chose for the announcement of universal salvation. This young girl, obscure, unnoticed, powerless, poor—was the one chosen out of all the world to fulfill the greatest role and task that history had ever offered, or would ever offer. None of this was accidental. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Fast forward a hundred years to find the Church of God, the people that sprung from Mary’s assent to the angelic annunciation. The Church of that time also looked immensely secular compared with the rest of the world, and compared with Religion. Everyone, pagan and Jew alike, knew what Religion involved: it involved having a sacred space, a temple, a sacred idol, a valid priesthood, an altar and fire for the animal sacrifices. The Christians, on the other hand, seemed to have no Religion at all. When they met, they didn’t meet in a sacred space, but in people’s homes (later on, they would build buildings for worship, but these too were patterned after people’s homes more than they were patterned after temples.) If need be, they could meet in the graveyard, the forest, or anywhere. Also, the Christians had no god, at least not one that anybody could see. They did not gather before an image to offer it homage. They simply met together with no idol in sight. And they didn’t offer sacrifices, killing an animal and offering it up in the fire of sacrifice upon an altar. They simply prayed, and ate a small bit of bread and wine, the ordinary stuff of daily meals. And they had no real priesthood as far as anyone could see. Some of their number presided at their prayers, men who had been themselves set apart by prayer. But that didn’t make them priests. Everyone knew that priests were distinguished by their ancestry, their lineage, their pedigree, and it looked like anyone could be chosen as one of their clergy. As far as every ancient Jew and pagan was concerned, the Christians had no real or proper religion at all.
These Jews and pagans were right. Christianity was not a religion—it is even, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, “The end of religion”. It is not Religion; it is our participation, through our sacramental union with Christ, in the powers of the age to come, a participation that transcends religion with all its earthly categories and boundaries.
It is important to remember this when we enter an Orthodox Church for worship, because there we encounter a lot of stuff—icons, and candles, and vestments. We meet in a building set apart; we clothe our clergy in fancy vestments. All of this might give the unsuspecting the erroneous impression that Orthodoxy was primarily a religion, and that the icons, candles, vestments, and externally beautiful things were what it was all about. But these things do not constitute its essence; they merely adorn its essence. Its essence is the power of Christ in our midst. When Christ comes into our midst, of course we fancy things up and celebrate it. When a royal dignitary comes to visit, we lay out the red carpet. These external things are the red carpet we lay out for Him. But what matters is not the carpet, but the King.
The Annunciation reminds us that Christianity is not a religion, but the life-giving power of God that transcends religion. In its early days, it did not look like a religion. Even now, when it looks rather more religious, it is still not a religion. It is a presence—the presence that the Virgin of Nazareth welcomed into her body when she spoke with the archangel in Nazareth long ago. It is the same presence we welcome into our midst today, whenever we gather together in His Name.