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    ANNUNCIATION, SINNERS' DAY-OFF IN HELL

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    MOSCOW, APRIL 6 (RIA Novosti correspondent Nikolai Zherebtsov) - Eastern Christendom regards the Annunciation as the most cherished by the Lord of all Feasts. Even devils in hell stop tormenting sinners for that day, just as Easter, say theologians.

    Celebrated April 7, the Annunciation is one of the twelve Feasts, principal Christian holy days. Its sublime story is offered in the Gospel according to St. Luke. It tells of Archangel Gabriel visiting the Blessed Virgin Mary to bring Her the good tidings. Mary was destined to "bring forth a son, and call His name Jesus". The divine Child was to save the world, and reign over it. According to the dogmata related to the New Testament, the Annunciation opened the gates of the New Age and New Life.

    A landmark in the salvific events, the Annunciation started the mystical communion of God with Adam's race, hence its unique importance to Christendom.

    Eastern Christians attach even greater significance to it. The calendar year started with the Annunciation in the days of old. The celebrations were mystical and romantic at once in Russia.

    The Annunciation Cathedral of the Kremlin used to be the home church of the Russian Royalty. Built toward the end of the 15th century, it is one of Russia's most beautiful and majestic houses of prayer. Alexis II the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia serves an Annunciation liturgy here every year.

    The Russian Orthodox clergy wear sky-blue vestments, the heraldic colour of Our Lady, for the day's services.

    The Orthodox Christian canon forbids whatever work on the Annunciation-even needlework is blasphemous. "Daddy took the needle to mend horse harness on the Annunciation. Months passed, and when he went haymaking, fierce snakes were hissing at the sinner all his way from under every bush," says an old folk legend. A proverb joins in: "Birds do not make their nests, and maidens pleat their hair on the Annunciation." According to the beliefs of Russian grassroots, birds and beasts were celebrating together with humans. When a bird dares to make a nest this day, it is severely punished-its wings do not carry it for weeks, and the creature has to walk in penitence, unable to lift from the ground.

    As another popular belief has it, the Lord blesses crops to open the earth for sowing on this great day. That is why priests bless seeds on the Annunciation or its eve, and farmers cherish the sanctified grain to the sowing days.

    When, as this year, the Annunciation falls on Holy Week, it breaks the austere fast with fish and a bit of wine.

    To keep off all sorrow and mournful thoughts is the pious Christian's principal duty on the Annunciation, for it spells the jubilance of Salvation. There is no salvation without joy, and no joy outside salvation. That is why the pious repeat, after the Archangel: "Hail, Thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with Thee: blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the child of Thy womb." The sun rejoices with the pious, and its light at the Annunciation dawn is an interplay of glowing rainbow colours, says another Russian folk belief.

    Russia knew a touching custom of old: caged birds were set free on the Annunciation. No other Church but the Russian knew that custom. Patriarch Alexis II revived it as, April 7, 1995, he set doves free in the Kremlin's Cathedral Square, in front of the golden-domed Annunciation Cathedral. It was a fantastic sight to see as snow-white birds shot upwards into the sunlit sky, say eyewitnesses.

    On another old custom, Russians baked lark-shaped fancy pastries on the Annunciation. The birds' eyes were made of pickled blueberries stocked up in autumn. Children arranged the pastries on tree branches.

    The oldest extant Annunciation icons and murals date to the 5th century, and the oldest Greek icon to the 12th though, according to Church tradition, the first-ever representation of Our Lady came from the brush of St. Luke in Her lifetime on earth. A gifted painter, the Evangelist was Mary's closest friend among the disciples of Her Son.

    The Annunciation iconography emerged over the centuries to reach the utmost perfection. Every Orthodox Christian church necessarily possesses such an icon. The holy image of the Annunciation is one of the twelve in the Feast Row of the iconostasis. The canonical version portrays the Blessed Virgin pensively seated spinning, or with the Scripture in Her left hand. Gabriel, on Her left, is about to kneel, hand forward in blessing. Sunrays, in whose midst is a dove in a circle, come down from a corner to reach Mary in a symbolical portrayal of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. "The Lord is with Thee: blessed art Thou among women," says the Archangel as the sublime mystery of the Immaculate Conception is fulfilled to usher in the Incarnation.

    Certain other icons portray a small disk in the sky, out of which a conic ray of light reaches down to Mary's nimbus. This, fairly rare iconography sends ufologists into a rapture.

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