Old Testament Women at the Annunciation: Gleanings from the Western Rite Lectionary


by Lynette A. Smith

Not All By Herself

Orthodox believers of both the Eastern and Western Rites celebrate major feast days in honor of the events of the Theotokos’ life. St. Luke records three of these important occurrences: the Annunciation, March 25 (1:26-38), the Visitation, July 2 (1:39-56), and the Presentation, February 2 (2:21-39). One of the features these three stories have in common is that our Lady is never alone; rather, other people share in the events of her life.

We know that Mary deliberately goes to be with her cousin Elizabeth after Mary’s annunciation. Nor is Mary is alone at the Temple when she presents the infant Jesus, because the Gospel tells us that at least her husband, Joseph, the priest, and Saints Simon and Anna are there for the occasion. Mary’s annunciation itself, however, seems a little different. Yes, the archangel Gabriel comes to her, but he leaves after delivering his message, and we do not read that she has anyone else with her. Or, does she?

In fact, those who attend Orthodox Western Rite parishes discover in the lectionary readings for the Feast of the Annunciation that five women from the Old Testament spiritually join with the Blessed Virgin Mary.[1] These women, in order of their liturgical appearance, are Eve, Sarah, the Psalmist’s royal Queen, the conceiving Virgin in Isaiah, and Hannah.

For any major Feast day, all Orthodox liturgies, whether Eastern or Western, deliberately place specific Old Testament passages in close succession to particular New Testament texts to help us make interpretive links between the contents of each. In the Feast of the Annunciation in the Orthodox Western Rite, the link is that all the Old Testament texts are about women bearing sons who carried vital significance for salvation history as fulfilled in the New Testament. These women and their sons helped prepare the world for the advent of the Theotokos, and her son, Jesus Christ. Within their own life stories the women functioned as “types” of Mary. A type is a prefigurative symbol which points forward to, and is fulfilled by, the corresponding future reality (antitype).[2] Thus, all these Old Testament women served as pointers to the reality and life of the Mother of God.

In what follows, we will reflect on the ways in which Western Rite liturgy illuminates the types of Eve, Sarah, the Psalmist’s royal Queen, the conceiving Virgin in Isaiah, and Hannah in the Feast of the Annunciation.

Women at the Annunciation

We meet the first woman type, Eve, in the Vesper service of Annunciation Eve.[3] With the Old Testament lectionary lesson from Genesis 3:1-15, this initial service of the Annunciation takes us worshippers as far back in time as possible, deep into the painful deception of Eve in the Garden of Eden. It then pulls us forward a little by the spark of hope ignited in the poem of the protoevangelium concerning her male offspring: “The LORD God said to the serpent . . .  ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.’”[4]

Presently, when the liturgy directs us to the New Testament lesson, Revelation 12, we find that the Scriptures have hurled us far into the future to meet the antitype of Eve. She gives birth to a boy and encounters a dragon who unsuccessfully seeks to destroy her and devour her son. It is a world of cosmic proportions—like Eden—and the woman is like Eve, yet much greater than she is, for she bears the predicted offspring who will “rule all nations with a rod of iron.” [5] The text identifies the dragon as “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.”[6] The same serpent who deceived Eve, in spite of great conflict, is now defeated, and the woman, the son, and the “rest of her children” are victors. The Holy Orthodox Church identifies this woman, “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet,” as Mary herself.[7]

On the actual feast day, we meet the second woman type in the special Old Testament lesson for the Morning Divine Office, Genesis 18:1-14. Similar to the evening before, we find ourselves several thousand years back, now at the annunciation of the barren matriarch Sarah, wife of Abraham. We hear her laugh in incredulity and the angelic visitor retort, “Is any thing too hard for the LORD?” He reinforces his promise, “At the time appointed I will return unto thee, ….and Sarah shall have a son.”[8] Through Sarah, Isaac, the long promised son will be born through whom God will bless all nations.

The New Testament lesson of John 1:1-18 reveals the antitype of Sarah’s son Isaac in the person of the Word (logos). In this lectionary reading, we are conveyed even further back before Eden, before time, to when the Logos of God already was. We watch the Word make the world and light up human life in just the time it takes to read the verses.[9] Having scarcely absorbed these words, we meet another promised son sent from God to announce the advent of the Logos.[10] John the Forerunner aids us to behold, without being able to plumb the mystery, the only Begotten of the Father becoming human, “full of grace and truth.”[11]

The next service of the Feast is the Divine Liturgy, in which we specifically center upon the Gospel account of the Annunciation itself and celebrate the Eucharistic banquet. Perhaps, however, before we can hear the Gospel, we must further prepare our hearts to receive such a profound message. Accordingly, the Liturgy introduces two more Old Testament Marian types toward the beginning of the service.

First, we chant the Introit Proper of Psalm 45:13, 15-16 (LXX 44). In these scriptures, we discover that we are singing at a royal wedding. We affirm to the bride that the rich will come and make their requests to her, and that ladies-in-waiting will escort her to the King. Who is this bride? She is a royal consort to an Israelite monarch, but beyond that, our liturgical texts do not yet explain. Second, a short time later in the service, we listen to the lectionary reading of Isaiah’s prophecy in 7:10-15 given to another royal figure that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son named Emmanuel.”

From the first scriptures uttered at Annunciation Eve to the Epistle appointed for the Mass, our biblical liturgical texts have been suspending us in waiting, providing opportunity for us to anticipate the fulfillment of what they promise. At last, when the priest or deacon chants the Gospel Reading, the Liturgy fully discloses this fulfillment in Luke 1:26-38.

. . . And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end . . .[12]

The Two Hymns

Even after reaching this central point of the feast, the story of the Annunciation does not yet end. A last commemoration takes place during that day’s Vespers and includes one more Old Testament woman type who has to do with Mary. The Old Testament lectionary reading is of Hannah and her presentation of Samuel at the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:21-2:10; LXX 1 Kingdoms). The New Testament reading is the sequel to St. Luke’s Annunciation story, Mary’s visitation to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55).

At first glance we may wonder why the lectionary has switched from the Annunciation to the Visitation. That feast is not celebrated until July! A deeper look, however, reveals that just as in all the other testament readings for the feast, these texts abound with typology. Hannah’s story and the Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth serve the story of the Annunciation like a gold setting intensifies the beauty of a diamond. They unite two similar hymns of praise, one sung by Hannah and the other by the Theotokos herself, to surround Mary’s annunciation with the exultation befitting the occasion.

The texts tell of two barren women, the type Hannah and her antitype, Elizabeth, miraculously conceiving prophets Samuel and John the Forerunner, who prepared the way for King David and King Jesus. These scriptures speak of the simple faith of both the type Hannah, who took the priest, Eli, at his word, and of the antitype Mary, to whom her cousin Elizabeth said, “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”[13]

The type of Hannah’s hymn and the antitype of Mary’s song spring from the lips of women who rejoice in God’s salvation from a very personal level to the whole of Israel and the earth. Both women envision the work of God triumphing over emptiness, poverty, evil, and death to bless the nations through His Anointed. Hannah finishes her Magnificat with a prophecy looking forward to the coming of King David and his antitype, the Messiah, Jesus the Son of God. “And he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.”[14] Mary ends her Magnificat hearkening back to God’s ancient covenant and His great redemptive acts, as if they have already been completed through her Son. “He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.”[15]

Conclusion

The interconnection of the Old and New Testaments is nearly seamless because of the rich use Orthodox services make of typology. We easily travel from the far reaches of pre-historic Eden in Genesis to an apocalyptic war in heaven in Revelation. The intent is that we will notice that our liturgical texts link the New Testament Mary as the antitype of Old Testament types who bore Israel’s key leaders before her, culminating with her bearing God’s Son, the Messiah.

In reversal of Eve’s choice, Mary cooperates with the will of God and becomes Revelation’s “new Eve” whose son will conquer Satan. Like Sarah, she will conceive under circumstances that only God can say is “possible,” and whose son is the ultimate fulfillment of promise. Like Isaiah’s maiden, she is a Virgin who miraculously bears a son; like the Queen in Psalm 45, she is highly favored of the Lord. Lastly, she is like Hannah, bold with trust in God, and full of vision for His salvation of the world.

The affect of including so many women types from different generations serves to bind their lives together in the history of Israel and thus, most importantly, to the life of Christ, His holy Mother, and to us, His Church. These women carry a key role in God’s salvation history. They had ample reason to rejoice. So do we.

 

Lynette Smith, M.A. Biblical Studies, is a member of St. Columba Orthodox Church in Lafayette, CO. She is author of the book, Voyage: A Quest for God within Orthodox Christian Tradition, published by Regina Orthodox Press, 2010.


ENDNOTES


[1] The official, but not mandated, Western Rite Vicariate lectionary is from the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer and is followed for this article.

[2] Based on the definition in John Breck, “Theoria and Orthodox Hermeneutics,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 20 (1976), 201.

[3] The festival was recorded as being celebrated as early as A.D. 446 (John Henry Blunt, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 3d ed., London: Rivertons, 1868, 42, 133) Blunt has written what remains the most exhaustive scholarly commentary on the Book of Common Prayer to date. In A.D. 735, Venerable Bede reported that the annunciation of Mary was celebrated on March 25 in the Western world beyond Rome, following the logic of nine months before December 25. The official beginning of a major feast day is the evening before.

[4] Gen. 3:15.

[5] Rev. 12:5.

[6] Rev. 12:9.

[7] Rev. 12:1.

[8] Gen. 18:12-14.

[9] John 1:1-5.

[10] John 1.6-7.

[11] John 1:14.

[12] Luke 1:30-33.

[13] Luke 1:45.

[14] 1 Sam. 2:10.

[15] Luke 1:55.