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Online Edition - Vol. X, No. 1: March 2004
Fra Angelico - The Annunciation. Fresco. San Marco, Florence (detail)
The Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, is one of the most important in the Church calendar. It celebrates the actual Incarnation of Our Savior, the Word made flesh, in the womb of His mother, Mary.
The biblical account of the Annunciation is in the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, 26-56. Saint Luke describes the annunciation given by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she was to become the mother of the Incarnation of God.
Here is recorded the "angelic salutation" of Gabriel to Mary, "'Hail, full of grace; the Lord is with thee" (Ave, gratia plena. Dominus tecum. Lk. 1:28), and Mary's response to God's will, "'Let it be done to me according to thy word'" (fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. v. 38)
This "angelic salutation" is the origin of the "Hail Mary" prayer of the Rosary and the Angelus* (the second part of the prayer comes from the words of salutation of Elizabeth to Mary at the Visitation).
The Angelus, a devotion that daily commemorates the Annunciation, consists of three Hail Marys separated by short versicles. It is said three times a day, morning, noon and evening, traditionally at the sound of a bell. The Angelus derives its name from the first word of the versicles, Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae (The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary).
Mary's exultant hymn, the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55, has been part of the Church's liturgy of the hours, at Vespers (evening prayer), and has been repeated nightly in churches, convents and monasteries for more than a thousand years.
The Church's celebration of the Annunciation is believed to date to the early 5th century, possibly originating at about the time of the Council of Ephesus (c 431). Earlier names for the Feast were Festum Incarnationis, and Conceptio Christ. The Annunciation has always been celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas Day.
Two other feasts honoring Our Lord's mother, the Assumption (August 15), and the Immaculate Conception (December 8), are celebrated as Holy Days of Obligation in the United States and many other countries. New Year's Day, January 1, is observed as a Solemnity of Mary. The Annunciation was a Holy Day of Obligation throughout the Universal Church until the early 20th century. Many Catholics who are deeply concerned with the defense of the life of unborn children believe it would be fitting if the Feast of the Annunciation were restored to this status. Although it seems unlikely that it will be added to the Church calendar, we can certainly take on the "obligation" ourselves to attend Mass. In any case, it is most appropriate that we encourage special celebrations in the "Domestic Church".
One sign of the significance this Christian feast had throughout Western culture is that New Year's Day was for centuries celebrated on March 25. It was believed by some ancient Christian writers that God created the world on March 25, and that the fall of Adam and the Crucifixion also took place March 25. The secular calendar was changed to begin the year on January 1 (in 1752 in England and colonies, somewhat earlier on the continent).
Another remnant of the historic universality of Christianity in the West is the use of BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini -- The Year of Our Lord) to denote periods of time in history. There has been an attempt in some circles to change BC to BCE (before the common era), and AD to CE (common era). Although it is true that the religious significance of our system of dating has been effectively obliterated, nevertheless, Christians and non-Christians alike consent to the birth of Christ as the "fulcrum" of dating the events of human history.
Family observance of the Annunciation
In families with young children, this feast would be a good time to begin teaching youngsters important lessons about the inestimable value God places on human life.
First, that He loved us so much that He chose to become one of us to take on our humanity so completely that He "became flesh", as utterly weak and dependent as any human infant is. Second, God became "like us in all things except sin" at the moment of His conception in Mary's womb, not at some later time. The Feast of the Annunciation is a celebration of the actual Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Children may, quite naturally, think that the birth of Jesus is the time when Our Savior first "became Man", especially since Christmas has become the Christian holiday in our culture. We understand best what we can see, what is visible. The invisible, the hidden, is no less real for our lack of seeing it. (We think of the baby in its mother's womb, known and felt, though unseen, only to her.)
Even very young children can know the truth about the growth of a baby inside its mother's body, especially if the mother of the family (or an aunt, perhaps) happens to be pregnant on the holiday. The nine months' wait from March 25 to December 25 for the Baby to be born would be interesting to most children. (God made no special rules for His own bodily development!) What better way than reading the first chapter of Luke to gently begin teaching children about the beginning of each new human life?
Children should be told how important it is to every person that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1), and parents can find this feast a valuable teaching moment.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Article 3 of the Creed: "He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was born of the Virgin Mary" (§436-511), should be read by parents. This will not only give adults a timely review of Catholic doctrine, but it can be a great help to us in transmitting important truths of the faith to our children. The summary at the end can help formulate points we want to emphasize. Excerpts from the Catechism could be read aloud to older children.
Some other lessons that can be drawn from this important feast on the Church's Calendar are:
- Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
- Angels as God's messengers
- The importance of humility, submission and obedience to God's will
- The value of hiddenness, silence, quiet (baby in womb, Mary at home, etc.)
* Angelus cards may be ordered from Adoremus office: PO Box 300561, St. Louis, MO 63130, or e-mail email@example.com
Copyright © 2004-2006 Women for Faith & Family; reprinted with permission. For suggestions for activities with young children to celebrate this feast, visit the Women for Faith & Family web site, www.wf-f.org/Annunciation.html.
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