The Message of Gnosis
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 matterthe hyletic reality.
He also had a mother and father according to spiritthe 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 virgins 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
constructonly 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 Marys 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 Barbelothat 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.
-- Rev. Steven Marshall