The Solemnity of the Annunciation is the third biggest feast in the Church after Easter and Christmas. Because of its importance we celebrate what is known as Solemn Chapter (some monasteries call it Joyous Chapter; same thing.) After the Prologue of St. John's Gospel is sung, Sr. Mary Martin invites the Sister who is to give the sermon to come up and sit next to her. By custom this is kept secret and by custom it is usually (but not always) the newest novice. So, it wasn't much of a surprise that Sr. Maria Teresa gave the sermon! We share her beautiful reflection below along with some photos of the ceremony.
On this, the vigil of the Annunciation, we contemplate that day two thousand years ago when the complete self-gift, body and soul, of a young girl to God inaugurated the redemption of all mankind. We learn from our Holy Father Augustine that “as death had befallen us through a woman, Life should be born to us through a woman.”
Eve, mother of all the living, was forbidden by God from taking the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. To the other fruit bearing trees she was given free access, but from this one she herself was not allowed to take and eat lest she perish. Yet, God never said that He would not give the fruit to her. Why did Eve, when she heard from the serpent that the fruit would be beneficial to her, why did she not ask God for the fruit? Eve did not ask because she doubted God’s fatherly love for her. The serpent coerced her into doubting God’s motives. Eve no longer perceived God as a loving Father, but as Someone who could not be trusted to do what was best for her. She doubted God’s Fatherhood and in losing sight of who God is, she also lost sight of her own self-worth and therefore lusted after the fruit that could raise her to the level of a god.
Our brother, Thomas Aquinas, writes that “man was able to be misled into this clinging as to an end to things less than God…by his ignorance of the worthiness of his nature.” This doubt in God’s Fatherhood led to the sin that cast Eve out of Eden and created a rift between body and soul in herself and all of her descendants which we call Original Sin, an insurmountable distance between the All Holy One and man, the Creator and His beloved creatures. Man, once made in the image and likeness of God, marred and disfigured this image so that soon man would not even recognize Him in whose image he was made.
What then was God to do? Saint Athanasius answers, “What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our savior Jesus Christ? The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after that Image.” Eve ate the forbidden fruit to raise man to the level of God, and thus disfigured the very image of God within man. God, to redeem man, lowered Himself to become man. That which Eve ran from, God in His own person has embraced. Through Eve the image of God in man became disfigured, and so it pleased God that His image should come through a new Eve to inaugurate His new creation, His redemption of man. God’s new Eve was Mary.
Mary, alone among Eve’s descendants, was preserved from original sin at her conception. Mary and Eve were the only two women in history who were given the opportunity to choose the good without the hindrance of disorderly passions, the effects of original sin. Mary was completely free, as Eve was, to choose the good. Whereas Eve doubted God’s fatherly love for her, Mary fully believed that God is Father, that He could conceive the Child He promised within her womb. Eve grasped at the forbidden fruit and by that sin tore man from God. Mary received the promised Fruit in her womb, the Fruit that restored man to God. Eve conceived a son, Cain, who killed his brother because his brother found favor with God while he himself did not. Mary conceived a Son, Jesus, who gave up His own life for his brothers because His brothers did not find favor with God while He did. Eve used her freedom to choose death but Mary, in her freedom, chose life. Tertullian writes, “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other by believing effaced.”
As Eve’s sin was the cause of the condemnation for herself and for the whole human race, so too was Mary’s fiat the cause of salvation for us all. As man ran in ignorance from his own nature into the depths of damnation, God, in His supreme goodness, united Himself to man’s nature that man might be restored. To end with a quote from Augustine, “For this purpose the Eternal Word came upon earth, to make known to man how dearly God loved him.”