Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saintly Saturday: The Forefeast of the Annunciation

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the Forefeast of the Annunciation. When I began to really study the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church, one of the things that really caught my attention was the fact that the Orthodox have two modes of worship — anticipation and celebration. A classic example is Great Lent and Pascha (Easter). We fast for forty days in anticipation of Pascha and then celebrate the Feast of Feasts for forty days. This mode of anticipation is so strong that we see the concept of the Forefeast — we begin to celebrate before we celebrate.

Since tomorrow is the Annunciation — when Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will bear the Christ Child in her womb — and since it is one of the great feasts of the Orthodox Church, today is a blend of both celebration and anticipation.

The feast of the Annunciation is itself a culmination of anticipation — the hope for and expectation of the coming of the Christ. In Scripture we see a consistent pattern unfold over and over again when God wishes to give his people children of promise — the barren woman (often beyond the age of childbearing) is made pregnant and bears a child:

  • Sarah, wife of Abraham, gives birth to Isaac (Gen. 16-21).
  • Rebekah, wife of Isaac, gives birth to the twins Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25).
  • Rachel, wife of Jacob, gives birth to Joseph and later Benjamin (Gen. 30).
  • Samson’s mother was barren until she saw a vision of an angel (Judges 13).
  • Hannah, wife of Elkanah, gives birth to Samuel (1 Sam or 1 Kings by LXX reckoning). As a fascinating side note, the Song of Hanna (1 Sam/1Kings 2:1-10) mirrors the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55).
  • Elizabeth, wife of Zachariah, gives birth to John the Baptist (Luke 1)
  • The extra-biblical account in the Protoevangelium of James (which mirrors the stories associated with the Orthodox feasts of the Conception (Dec. 9), Nativity (Nov. 8) and Presentation at the Temple (Nov. 21) of the Virgin Mary) sees Anna, the mother of the Virgin, barren and well beyond childbearing age when she becomes pregnant with Mary.

This pattern, however, is broken with the Annunciation. Note that Mary was “deeply concerned” and she asks of Gabriel, “How can this come about, since I have no knowledge of man?” The anticipatory pattern highlights the uniqueness and importance of the Annunciation — Mary is not only the mother of a child of promise, she is the Mother of God Incarnate.

I highlight this idea of anticipation because I see it as a tool we can use to create truly memorable moments within a campaign, if not memorable campaigns in and of themselves. My most rewarding moments as a player and as a referee were set-up long before hand by laying an anticipatory foundation.

When I was in high-school, I was involved in a campaign with twelve(!) players that saw the party investigating strange occurrences within the realm. As the campaign wore on, we discovered that these were due to a breakdown in the walls between the PCs reality and one of the realms of the Abyss. Though we went on several different kinds of adventures, this was always part of the background noise. The memorable moment was when the party finally found the source of the breakdown and the battle that ensued as the PCs did what they could to shut it down. All the normal D&D stuff — heroic deaths, well timed natural 20s, etc. — were heightened because this was a battle for which we had been preparing since being level 1 nobodies.

My favorite moment of my Lost Colonies campaign was the reveal of a Brain Lasher. From the very beginning of the campaign, I had dropped hints that my favorite Cthulhu-inspired monster was operating somewhere in the background. Therefore, when my party realized that all those hints and rumors were not only real, but standing right in front of them, their reaction was priceless. It was a reaction made possible because of anticipation.

There are several simple ways to add anticipation to an adventure or a campaign:

  • Rumor Tables
  • Background Political Events
  • Architectural Styles/Clues
  • Legends via Sages or Found Items
  • Themed Monster Encounters (like the demons above)
  • Quests

Note that some of the things these hint at will never come to fruition — and that is okay; however, when they do, it makes our celebration of these events (when we retell our adventures and/or reminisce about them) all that much sweeter.

I will end with a question: What are some of the ways anticipation has been achieved in the campaigns you’ve played?


Alex Osias said...

In Fading Suns, I used to use dreams. They involved some of the personages key to future events, as well as some dream-based symbolism to hint at future happenings.

In other games, my GMs have also used two techniques: small bits of news and rumor on the periphery that add up to a big major event if one pays attention and makes connections; and foreshadowing through omens and parallels in PC / NPC lives.

Anthony said...

Great essay, and I so agree with anticipation creating astounding moments when the players finally realize what's happening.

In my old Greyhawk 1E campaign, I'd been dropping hints for months about "some ancient evil predating the gods" in my campaign. As I recall, I'd used architecture, hints from NPCs, and clues in treasures. They wondered, but only one player was on the right track. Finally, when one adventure explicitly revealed the handiwork of the "Outer Ones" (the Cthulhu deities), that same player leapt up and shouted "I knew it, I knew it, I KNEW IT!!" and then he explained to the others why their world was oh-so-screwed.

The build up ("anticipation") had made this a wonderful moment for both players and GM (me). :)

Benjamin of Wight said...

Dear Fr Dave,
Surely for orthodox the Annunciation will be 7 April - due to all that Julian/Gregorian Thing...

FrDave said...

That depends upon which jurisdiction you happen to be in. Back in the 1920s several jurisdictions, including Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria all went to the Gregorian calendar for all the fixed feasts (like Christmas and Annunciation). Jurisdictions like Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine will indeed celebrate April 7; however, all jurisdictions still use the Julian calendar to figure the movable feasts so that we all celebrate Pascha (Easter) at the same time.