Looking ahead to the Annunciation (March 25, but transferred to April 8 in 2024)
Mar 24, 2024

Looking ahead to the Annunciation (March 25, but transferred to April 8 in 2024)

God, the author of all, knows how to write a good story. The Bible communicates a single message of redemption, what some have called an enormous love letter from God to his beloved people. Yet throughout the rich variety of poems, prayers, narrative, and song, there is a unifying theme. Each word, each verse, and each book of the Bible hangs together to execute this theme—as we might expect from God, who identifies so closely as the “Word.” Today’s solemnity, the Annunciation of the Lord, celebrates one of the most profound moments in Scripture’s rich tapestry and illustrates the integrity of the revealed Word in remarkable ways.

Today’s celebration of Gabriel’s message to Mary and her affirmative reply recalls the events from the very first verses of the Bible. In the book of Genesis, Eve is tempted by the devil, the Father of Lies, to close her ears to God’s life-giving Word. Despite God’s command that our first parents were not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, [so] she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). We know the rest of the story—and we know it is true because we have lived with the consequences of the Fall in our lives.

With this initial chapter of the “greatest story ever told” in mind, consider now the approaching apex of God’s letter, the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. The ancient hymn Ave, Maris Stella gives us an interpretive key to the scene. It sings of how the first word of Gabriel to Mary, Ave, transforms the damage, confusion, detours, and dead ends along the road to heaven wrought by Eve, in Latin, Eva. St. Irenaeus (c. 130–202) sees the same reversal at this turning point of salvation history: “As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve” (Office of Readings for Friday of the Second Week of Advent). Thus, the celebration of the Annunciation of the Lord first recalls with gratitude that fiat, “let it be done,” from Mary that brought God to man, heaven to earth, at Christmas.

The Annunciation and the Nativity are the two great celebrations of the coming of God to earth. Together, they serve as essential chapters in God’s narrative of salvation. Mary, after conceiving Christ “through her ear,” that is, by listening to and receiving God’s message, gives birth to this same Savior nine months later. Naturally, the Church marks the celebration of these two days nine months apart—the March 25 incarnation of the Word comes to fruition with the Savior’s birth on December 25. These two dates also find a ritual association unique to themselves: during the recitation of the Creed, at the words “and became man,” all present genuflect or kneel rather than merely bowing, as on other occasions. Since eternity “grounds itself ” in our time, since divinity unites itself to our humanity (“human,” from humus, or “earth,” “dirt”), we humans likewise bend our knees and, literally, ground our own selves.

The Church’s liturgy, though, does not simply recall the historical annunciation and birth of Jesus nine months later, but it also directs our attention to his death and resurrection. Before March 25 celebrated Jesus’ conception, it was on this day that the Church recalled his death. In the early centuries of the Church, March 25 corresponded roughly to 14 Nisan on the Jewish calendar, the day of Passover, which is when Christ the Paschal Lamb was slain. The God–Man would suffer death for our salvation as a result of Eve’s disobedient “no” and Mary’s obedient “yes.”

In some ways, the Annunciation celebrates the Paschal Mystery as much as it does the Incarnation. As St. Leo’s text from the day’s Office of Readings puts it, “Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering. Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death.” But the Paschal Mystery is not only about Christ’s suffering and death but also his resurrection. The liturgy of the Church ties the Annunciation to the Resurrection in the Prayer after Communion at Mass, asking that by “confessing that he who was conceived of the Virgin Mary is true God and true man, we may, through the saving power of his Resurrection, merit to attain eternal joy.”

The Annunciation of the Lord, then, serves as a pivotal event in this largest of love letters. Just days before Christmas, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) paints a vivid picture of our emotions as we overhear Gabriel’s announcement and await Mary’s reply. It is an image that expresses beautifully the significance of Mary’s choice on this day. He writes: “Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word … Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous … Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word” (Office of Readings for December 20).

The above entry appears in Ascension’s book Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty, by Christopher Carstens, Denis McNamara, and Alexis Kutarna. Featuring each of the 17 annual solemnities, Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty examines the theological, spiritual, and liturgical foundations for each celebration; explains the beauty of the solemnity by a commentary on artistic illustration of the celebration; and offers ideas for living the solemnity in one’s daily life. Solemnities: Celebrating a Tapestry of Divine Beauty was awarded Second Place in the “Pastoral Ministry—Parish Life” category by the Catholic Media Association in 2023. See more about the book at https://ascensionpress.com/products/solemnities-celebrating-a-tapestry-of-divine-beauty.

Image Source: AB/Wikipedia. Murate Annunciation (1443–1450), by Filippo Lippi