A Homily for The Annunciation to Our Lady
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The Annunciation to our Lady has been an important feast day in the calendar of the Church for a very long time. Annunciation is a synonym for “announcement,” and refers to the announcement of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary concerning her role in the advent of Christ. The traditional date of the Annunciation is March 25, which signifies the mystical conception of Christ, occurring as it does exactly 9 months before the date of Christmas when we celebrate the Christ’s birth. The popularity of this feast day in the traditional Church is most likely due to the emphasis on the divine feminine in the image of Mary to which many people related as the familiar mythological image of the woman or goddess who gives birth to the Divine Child. If the image of Mary embodies such a potent archetype, why is so little importance given to her in the Gnostic writings, and why then have we, as modern Gnostics, begun to honor her festivals?
The early Gnostics are not particularly interested in the physical or even metaphysical mechanisms of Jesus’ conception and birth for two basic reasons. 1) The Jesus of the Gnostics is a post-resurrectional mystery figure, the living Jesus, and is primarily a spirit, a pneuma. The Gnostic Jesus was not a person who died and disappeared, never to be heard of again, but an ever present reality in the inner life of his Gnostic followers, the ever coming and redeeming Logos. Therefore historical descriptions or theological speculations regarding any physical phenomena of conception and birth are of little consequence to the religious experience of the Gnostics. 2) In contrast to the dominant paradigm about women in early times the Gnostics do not view maternity as the principle value of the feminine. By the importance given to Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic writings, we can see that women signify the conceivers and birth givers of a deeply spiritual process in the life of the Gnostic, a role far transcending their biological role of conceiving and bearing children. Also, the Gnostics tend to view conception and birth as more of a tragedy than a joyful event. Many Gnostic writings identify incarnation with death and ignorance, as opposed to life and consciousness. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, “…for my mother gave me death, but my true Mother gave me the Life.”
Many of these Gnostic insights concerning conception and birth into the world seem to run counter to the values of life that many of us hold dear. They are paradoxically poised in reversal of our usual way of viewing our earthly life. The greatest paradox for the Gnostic is that of earthly incarnation. On the one hand it is a tragedy that anything should be born into this cruel world of misery and sorrow, and yet it is only through the incarnation of holy souls and the striving of humanity for greater consciousness in this life that the situation may be redeemed. When we approach these insights of Gnosis, we must remember that they are based on a view of the human existential condition through the lens of spiritual experiences and from the vantage point of an alternate and transcendent reality. What the Gnostics communicate is not so much a denial of earthly life as an affirmation of that which transcends it, the spiritual life that we knew at the beginning before our incarnation. Their intent is not to dishonor those who suffered and sacrificed to bring us into the world but to make us more conscious of a greater mystery.
To the Gnostic the conception of Jesus is a mystery, the same mystery that forms the background of our own existence. The evidence of this mystery, indeed, any mystery, is that a mystery can never be limited to one reality, and so we must approach this mystery of the Annunciation and the conception of Christ as multi-layered and multifaceted.
One of the models that the Gnostics used extensively is the classification of the universe into three levels of reality: the hyletic (physical), the psychic (mental) and the pneumatic (spiritual). Rather than denying either of these as illusory or false, the Gnostics accepted the reality of all three on their own level.
Applying the hyletic level of reality to the mystery of the Annunciation, we are dealing with a reconstructed history of earthly events. The Gospel of Philip seems to profess the position that Mary was a real woman who had sexual intercourse with a real man in the process of conceiving and giving birth to Jesus. “The Lord would not have said, ‘My father in heaven,’ if he had not had another father, but he would have said simply my father.” (The Gospel of Philip) Although the various Gnostic sects differed in their emphasis concerning the physical versus the spiritual reality of Jesus, the virgin conception and virgin birth were viewed as spiritual rather than physical realities by most of them.
The psychic level of interpretation would comprise the ideas, belief structures and mental constructs derived from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. This category would include the theology and soteriology of the Christ in the form of creeds designed to integrate the mythology and the history of the Christ into a cohesive belief system. We might also add to this the many explanations of the Annunciation to Mary and the conception of Christ that rely on metaphysics of one kind or another. The main distinction of the psychic level of reality is that it is second or third hand, being one level removed from any historical reality and one level removed from any direct personal experience.
The pneumatic reality of the Annunciation comes from a direct experience of a spiritual power, the Gnosis of the Christ Within, the revelation of the Holy Spirit that flesh and blood hath not revealed. The pneumatic level of the Mystery communicates an alternate reality of story, myth, ritual and mystical experience. On this level of reality Jesus has a spiritual mother and a spiritual father. As Jesus speaks of his Father in heaven, so he also has another mother, a spiritual Mother. Among the early Jewish Christian communities the Holy Spirit was called the mother of Christ. In the Gospel of the Hebrews Jesus says, “My mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by one of my hairs and carried me away to Mount Tabor.”
To further point us in the direction for discovering the pneumatic reality, the Gospel of Philip intimates that something is missing from the conventional creed of the mainstream Church about the conception of Christ: “Some said Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit. They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive of a woman.” Not only does this passage affirm that the Holy Spirit is a female power but it also acknowledges that a masculine polarity is necessary for the conception to occur. In the announcement of Gabriel, the angel describes two spiritual powers rather than one. “The Holy Spirit (the Mother) shall come upon thee and the power of the Highest (the Father) shall overshadow thee.” Jesus had a mother and father according to matter—the hyletic reality. He also had a mother and father according to spirit—the pneumatic reality. What distinguishes this from the theological explanations of psychic Christianity is that it comes from the Gnostics’ direct experience of their own spiritual mother and spiritual father. Unless we also have this experience, then it remains merely another belief.
The Gnostics tend to disregard and minimize the hyletic and psychic aspects of the Mystery in their writings, not because they disavowed them, but because they knew that ultimately only the pneumatic experience of the Mystery is transformative. Concern over historical facts, pseudohistorical details, or theological explanations are not going to transform us or help us grow spiritually. They are not going to change us or increase our consciousness. Talk and discussion of the metaphysics involved in a virgin’s conceiving, propounding theories and ideas ad infinitum, is not going to change the existential condition of the human soul. An intellectual conception or interpretation, no matter how appealing to our minds, is still only a mental construct—only experience can transform us.
It is because of experiences of the Virgin Mary and insights into her spiritual role in the present that we, as modern Gnostics, have added this festival to our liturgical year. From the very beginning, Gnostics have had an especially close kinship with and regard for the feminine image of deity. Even if the early Gnostics did not write much concerning the spiritual role of the Virgin Mary, the Gnostic throughout history has been open to new and evolving images of the divine feminine as they have expressed themselves in direct experience. As a culture, we are currently experiencing a growing recognition of the importance of the divine feminine. The appearances of the Virgin at Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje in recent times points to an increased activity of the divine feminine in the collective psyche. When in 1950 the Pope proclaimed the Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin, it was not just an exercise in ecclesiastical authority but predicated upon the personal visions and experiences of himself and others.
Another reason that the Annunciation is important to the Gnostic is the model of Mary’s response to the announcement of the angel. The presence of an angel in this story gives evidence of communication from the alternate, spiritual reality of our inner lives. The feminist interpretation views this story as a traditional model of female submission and obedience. Yet this announcement need not be seen as something ordained and commanded from on high but as a revelation and a choice for Mary to make. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, each human soul has a specific and unique redemptive task to bring about the restoration of the Light, wherein the fragmented sparks of the primordial Adam, the Human of Light, might be gathered together into the original whole. Each of us at some point in our lives may be brought a message of our redemptive task from the inner angelic voice of our higher divine self. We have the free will to choose to follow the revelation or not. Mary responds to the announcement of the angel not out of resigned obedience but in an affirmation of her own true will and divine purpose. “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Her choice brings it about, the fulfillment of the promise given in the aeons before her ever coming into the world. Mary hears the voice of her angelic and divine soul; she follows the Light which is above every power of the Father. In the story of Sophia, Sophia errs in following the false light of the Arrogant One. Leaving her consort, she brings forth the Demiurge, an imperfect god who is responsible for all of the tragedy of the human condition. She strives to redeem her mistake and correct her error through the sowing of a portion of her light power as sparks of light into the race of humanity.
In the story of the Annunciation, Mary chooses to bring forth a messenger of the Light, the Savior and Redeemer, by following not the false light but the true Light above the Aeons. In the Pistis Sophia, Mary conceives spiritually through the accepting of the Redeemer as the soul of the child in her womb. The Living Jesus tells the story thus: “It came to pass then thereafter, that at the command of the First Mystery I looked down on the world of mankind and found Mary, who is called my mother according to the body of matter. I spake with her in the guise of Gabriel, and when she had turned herself to the height towards me, I cast thence into her the first power which I had received from Barbelo—that is the body which I have borne in the height. And for the soul I cast into her the power which I have received from the great Sabaoth the Good, who is in the region of the Right.” In this fashion Mary takes on the culmination and embodiment of the redemptive role and destiny of the Holy Sophia.
Sophia is very important to us. Everything we do in this Church can be viewed as a cover for her acknowledgment and recognition in a culture where in times past the right to do so was paid for with our lives. Witches were not the only ones who were burned in the inquisition. Before them the last remaining Gnostics of European culture, the Cathars, were hunted down and burned as heretics. We are the hidden Children of Sophia. We are the protectors and guardians of her secret Gnosis. We acknowledge the darkness of this world and that, even in this more enlightened age, we could be imperiled and persecuted for her sake. And yet, in this place of darkness we have known her light. As in the prophetic verse of Isaiah, “They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
These mysteries are within us. We can experience the conception of Christ within our own souls. We can receive the annunciation and hear the hail of Gabriel. We are all, regardless of our gender, the handmaids of the Indwelling Lord. When we receive the message of the promise we have made before the Aeons of the Light, even as Mary heard the announcement of Gabriel, we can affirm the light of who we are and reply, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.