We have reached our second week of Great Lent. For many of us, this is a season which, while typically difficult, looks particularly more discouraging that usual. We have experienced an entire year in and out of quarantine and we had all hoped that by this time we would be back to our usual routines. It can feel pointless to practice the disciplines of Lent knowing that our Paschal celebrations will again be muted and lack the togetherness that we all hope for.
In addition, we have all encountered our own failures; if not in the first hours of the fast, we have met them face to face in the first days of the fast. Maybe it is helpful that ,particularly early in our Lenten season this year, we are given the feast of the Annunciation. This feast which gives our fasting a particular focus, a hope which is much needed.
The epistle reading for Annunciation does this particularly well by reminding us that our Saviour was, “made like his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest…For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”
We may find it discouraging to think about how our temptations bring failure; but Christ was tempted – without sin. We should rather be reminded how those of us who are parents are particularly able to sympathize with our children, understanding their struggles. This is how Christ stands with us in our trials. His participation in our struggles does not condemn us, but allows us to know that he stands with us, understanding what it is like to be hungry, tired, to feel unwell, and to experience the range of human emotion.
As noted by St John Chrysostom, “He took on Him our flesh, only for Love to man,” and “now he is not ignorant of our sufferings; not only does He know them as God, but as man also He has known them, by trial wherewith He was tried; He suffered much, He knows how to sympathize.
This is a message of great hope for us!
Finally, I wanted to reflect briefly on the Gospel reading for Annunciation. We hear the Angel Gabriel’s report to Mary and her response, “How can this be?” This gospel reading follows immediately after Luke tells the story of the announcement to Zacharias of the conception of St. John the Forerunner. At first glance, his response is not that different, “how can I be sure of this?” However, we know that the response of Zacharias was considered to be reflective of doubt; and as a result, he was unable to speak until after his son was born.
What is the difference between, Mary’s “how can this be” and Zacharias’ “how can I be sure of this”?
I suggest that the responses were different in that the response of the Mother of God reflects wonder “how can his be” where the response of Zacharias reflects a need for certainty, “how can I be sure of this?”. We live in an era where few things are valued over certainty, knowledge, and material facts. We may be tempted to think less of those who are gullible, who believe others and “get taken”; we prize certainty for ourselves and in ourselves; to have all of the information before we commit to anything.
While certainty is important in some aspects of our lives, certainty is not what makes for good relationships. What makes for good relationships is trust. In some ways, this need for knowledge and certainty is just the sin of the Garden of Eden coming back around again. Adam and Eve had relationship with God and they traded it away for the fruit of the tree of knowledge. So we see that the Mother of God succeeds where Eve does not. She does not ask for certainty, but she responds in wonder to God’s invitation.
Today, we are faced with the same challenge. Are we going to limit our relationship with God by looking for certainty? Looking for certainty that our fast is benefitting us? Looking for certainty in the darkness of the pandemic?
Are we going to expect certainty in our relationships with others? Are we only going to give our time to people who seem to be responding in ways that we expect them to? Are we only going to give our resources to places and people where we can see results?
May we have the ability to respond with the wonder and trust exemplified to us by the Mother of God. In our relationships, in our giving and in our following Christ. And like her, may we come face to face with Christ.