– Vol. 5, No. 1: March 1999
The Angel of the Lord Declared Unto Mary …
The Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th, 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 to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she was to become the mother of the Incarnation of God. Here, too, is the "angelic salutation" of Gabriel to Mary, "Hail, thou who art highly favored; the Lord is with thee" (v. 28), and Mary’s response to God’s will for her, "Let it be done to me according to thy word" (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 which daily commemorates the Annunciation, consists of three Hail Marys separated by short versicles and responses, and a concluding prayer. 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 versicle, 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 from the early 5th century, possibly at about the time of the Council of Ephesus (c 431). Earlier names for the Feast were Festum Incarnationis, and Conceptio Christi, and in the Oriental Churches, the Annunciation is a feast of Christ. In the Latin Church it is a feast of Mary.
The Annunciation has always been celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas Day. (The celebration of Christmas was established earlier.)
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 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, Catholics can certainly take on the obligation to attend Mass on this feast, if possible. 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. Some ancient Christian writers believed that God created the world on March 25, and that the fall of Adam and the Crucifixion also took place March 25. But the Feast of the Annunciation was universally celebrated on that date. The secular calendar was eventually changed to begin the year on January 1 (in 1752 in England and colonies, somewhat earlier on the continent); however, Inauguration Day in America was on March 25 until 1933.
Family Observance of the Annunciation
This feast would be a good time to begin teaching children 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 by 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 25th to December 25th 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 (or by) older children.
Families can also pray the Angelus together at dinnertime. (The text is printed below.)
Some other lessons that can be drawn from this important feast on the Church’s Calendar are: The 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 (e.g. baby in the womb, Mary at home, silent prayer.)
Helen Hull Hitchcock is Editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.
The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit;Hail Mary, full of grace, the LORD is with thee; Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Behold the Handmaid of the LORD: Be it done unto me according to Thy word. Hail Mary… And the WORD was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Hail Mary… Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that as we have known the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, by the message of an Angel, May, so by His Passion and Cross may we be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ, Our Lord. Amen.