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Question 1.

Αγαπητέ πάτερ Χριστοφόρε,

Πολλοί ισχυρίζονται ότι κατά τον Ευαγγελισμό η Θεοτόκος συνέλαβε τον
Χριστό αφού μύρισε έναν κρίνο ο οποίος της προσφέρθηκε από τον αρχάγγελο.
Αυτό το γεγονός δεν περιγράφεται σε κανένα ευαγγέλιο αλλά απεικονίζεται σε
εικόνες. Ο κρίνος μάλιστα επικράτησε να θεωρείται σύμβολο της παρθενίας.
Είναι αληθές το γεγονός αυτό ή πρόκειται για καινοτομία;


Translation of Question

Dear Father Christopher,

Many allege that during the Annunciation, the Mother of God conceived Christ after smelling a lily which was offered to her by the Archangel. This fact is not found in any of the Gospels, but is depicted in Icons. Moreover, the lily is strongly regarded as a symbol of virginity. Is this fact true or is this an innovation?

Answer to Question 1.

Dear Constantine,
Greetings in Christ. For your first question concerning the “lily” much of my answer can already be found on my web site but to save you time searching I have copied the relevant articles below. You are absolutely correct in saying that the “folklore” story of the lily cannot be found in any Gospel. We can go further and say that it is neither found in the Apocryphal Gospels. The Gospels do not teach us everything for when the Lord was to leave this world He promised us another teacher: “And I will pray to the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever. Even the Spirit of Truth” (John 14: 16) and “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things” (John 14: 26). Evidently then, there is a Christian teaching, which supplements the Gospels, and this teaching is found in Holy Tradition. But here we need to explain what Holy Tradition is.

The oldest Gospel of the New Testament, that according to St. Matthew, was written between 42-65 A.D. In other words, some years after our Lord Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The Last Gospel that according to St. John, was written between 85-95 A.D. Of the other books of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, being the last, was written about the year 96 A.D. Until all these books [27 in all] had been written and the Canon [collection of books] of the New Testament compiled, the Lord’s teaching, and that of the Apostles’, were orally transmitted. Moreover, not all that the Lord taught, said or did is written in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament; as St. John writes, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21: 25).

By mouth alone then, were such teachings transmitted by the Apostles to their successors, who in turn transmitted them to their successors and thus they have come down to us. St. Paul clearly writes this to the Christians of his time when he says: “stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” [that is whether oral or written] (2 Thessalonians 2: 15). It was the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit that separated after careful examination, which books should be accepted as genuine and thus compiled the Canon of the New Testament. These unwritten and orally transmitted Apostolic teachings, along with the divinely inspired books written by the Lord’s disciples and Apostles, make up Sacred or Holy Tradition, which is the basis and the foundation of the doctrine of the Orthodox Faith.

The majority of the stories associated with the Mother of God have come down to us by oral Tradition.
They can also be found in the Apocryphal Gospels. Apocrypha literally means them that are kept hidden. Apart from the canonical Gospels mentioned above, there are other gospels, which are hidden or kept apart from other Holy Scripture. This is because they contain stories that are not considered as authentic. It is believed that parts of these gospels were adulterated in places as a way of discrimination against the new Christian religion that was rapidly growing and taking over the Jewish faith. Some are said to have been completely written by over-zealous Jews, opposed to the Christian faith, to discredit and give it a false image. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has accepted parts of these writings as being authentic and which agree with the stories handed down by an oral tradition, from one generation to the next. These teachings are often found in the liturgical hymns and Icons, but are never read out in the services from the actual writings.
But we have already mentioned that the “lily” story cannot be found in any written source so let us look at the Icon. Iconography is a liturgical art, having the same spiritual depth and character as the hymns. Many traditions of the Church have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. These oral traditions have found their way into the liturgical hymns and through the hymns to the Icon.
As an Iconographer myself, I have a very large collection of Icons and in all the Icons of the Annunciation I cannot find one with Gabriel holding the lily. Of course, my Icons are all from the Byzantine School so that would verify that the lily is not part of Tradition. But I have seen it in modern Icons and have heard the story many times, so where did it come from?
A white lily can I suppose be interpreted as a symbol of purity [not in Icons for there are other symbols that represent the Mother of God’s purity and virginity]. It sounds like an analogy a poet would use so our answer could well be in the Church hymns. The are so many hymns in praise of the Mother of God that it would take far too much time to check them all, but if we just take the most well known of them: hymns like the Akathist Hymn [Ακάθιστος η Χαιρετισμοί] we find at least two references of flowers, [Χαίρε, το άνθος της αφθαρσίας, άνθος το αμάραντον]. Χαίρε, το άνθος της αφθαρσίας [ Hail, flower of incorruptibility] definitely refers to Her virginity. The Blessed Virgin is called by many other titles. These are not mere poetic sentiments, but each makes a theological statement. A great many have their origins in the Old Testament prophetic visions of the incarnation and are seen by the Church as types that pre-figure the Mother of God, e.g. The ‘Burning Bush’ that appeared to Moses and was not consumed; The flowering ‘Rod of Aaron’ chosen by God; Jacob’s vision of the ‘Spiritual Ladder’ reaching up to heaven; etc...
In poetry, it is quite acceptable to use such imaginative and sentimental phrases, but Icon painters should never use their own imaginations when painting an Icon. They should follow the accepted forms that have been consecrated by the Church and handed down through tradition. To stay within this tradition, they use older Icons or manuals as guides. Sadly, we see that from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century Iconographers began to introduce sentimental elements into the Icon. With the Ottoman occupation of the Greek lands, the Church on the whole went through a period of decadence and this is evidently noticeable in the Icon. Another element of that period was that the majority of priests were uneducated as were most of the people. How could the priests explain the Mystery of the Incarnation? How did the Virgin become pregnant? Of course it cannot be explain: it is beyond our human intellect and that is why it is called a Mystery, but it was probably much easier to say “μυρίσθηκε το κρίνο” (She smelt the lily). Nowadays the majority of priests are well educated, but you might still find a couple from the “old school” who will tell you “μυρίσθηκε το κρίνο” (She smelt the lily). I think it is safe to say that it is fairly new as far as traditions are concerned. It is just folklore, an easy way to explain something that is unexplainable. Of course, folklore traditions are very difficult to wipe out and like the lily story, there are many others that the people love to believe in. I have been trying for years to change certain traditions, which people believe are part of the Orthodox faith, but are in fact just the opposite. I haven’t been very successful: people prefer to believe in something their grandmother taught them instead of accepting the truth.