The Annunciation

El Greco, 1595-1600, The Annunciation

and other Beginnings

The thirty-second day of Lent 2010

March 25th


 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.  -- Luke 1:26-38 (KJV)

 

Durer: AdamDurer: Eve


Always falling in close proximity to Pascha (Easter), the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary unites the Paschal and Christmas cycles of the Church Year liturgically and theologically. The two cycles are never truly separate. However, they are distinct and the distinction may lead us to lose sight of their fundamental unity. In fact, both cycles are about beginnings. The Christmas cycle is about God's life among us as a man. That life is the life of the new Adam, born of the new Eve, a new beginning for all mankind, and that cycle begins with the Annunciation. The Paschal cycle is about the new Passover, the new springtime of redeemed humanity who, through the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, is raised from the death of sin to new life in the the risen Lord. Christian tradition and even secular tradition do not stop there in their understanding of this moment as the moment of the most profound origins. A very old tradition places both the Creation of the world and the Crucifixion of our Lord on March 25th. In consequence of this, in much of Europe, including Great Britain (and her colonies), until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar March 25th was the first day of the calendar year--in other words, all beginnings were understood in relation to the most fundamental beginnings: the beginning of Creation, the beginning of the Incarnation, and the beginning of our Redemption through the sacrifice of the Cross. While we are not aware of any tradition to this effect, it would not be surprising to find that the beginning of the Apocalypse is also expected to take place on March 25th.

Rubens, c. 1623-24, The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse
 

Rubens: Risen Christ

 

 

In the middle of Lent, this season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, this season of self-examination, repentance, and renewal, this season of exile in the wilderness and hope for the restoration of Jerusalem--in this season of all seasons, the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, and to us. The angel tells us not to be afraid, because we are afraid: afraid of the vision and afraid of its implications. The angel tells us of a great hope that is about to be fulfilled, but at considerable cost: a modest virgin's honor will be besmirched, individual lives will be altered in unexpected and possibly unwanted ways, earthly kingdoms will be overthrown, and things that are impossible will be done by the God for whom nothing is impossible, even the remaking of the world and the crushing of the serpent who started our troubles so long ago.

Unquestionably, this is a day that is rich in meaning. And yet, remarkably, there are few specific customs associated with it. In England alone there are more than two thousand churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. England itself was known as "Mary's Dowry" in the Middle Ages and there were major shrines with annual pilgrimages honoring her at Glastonbury and Walsingham, to name only two of the most important. But on this day, the day known as "Lady Day," the only widely practiced customs were the payment of rents and other legal obligations because March 25th was designated as one of the quarter days when obligations of this sort always fell due. As mentioned before, it was also the day when the year turned, but that would have been a matter of concern only for clerks and lawyers and historians who kept track of such things of necessity.

This should not prevent us from keeping the day with due festivity. It is, after all, the beginning of all that is important to us spiritually. The poet T.S. Eliot wrote, "In my beginning is my end." (Four Quartets: East Coker)  He did not invent the phrase but his reflection on the phrase might be an appropriate way to spend part of the day. It should certainly be a day to suspend the severity of Lent, both with festal services in church and feasting at home. Hymns and prayers from Mary's great August festival may properly be incorporated into today's festivities. Her own hymn of praise, the Magnificat, will be sung as usual at Evensong. It could also be sung as an anthem at the Eucharist and, where resources allow, special settings should certainly be used.

Occasionally, it will happen that the Annunciation coincides with the Triduum Sacrum. An English proverb suggests that this is a bad thing: "When our Lord falls in our Lady's lap, Then let England beware a sad mishap." Antiquaries say that the proverb dates only from the English Reformation and means that there will be divine retribution for the suppression of devotion to our Lady in England from that time. It is, at best, an odd sort of prophecy. Why would either God or our Lady wish to mar the celebration of the Lord's Passion and Resurrection with acts of vengeance? A more edifying approach to the relatively rare coincidence may be found in John Donne's poem, written to commemorate the concurrence of Good Friday and Lady Day in 1608. The most recent occasion of these two days coinciding was in 2005. It will happen again in 2016, and then it will be more than a century before it occurs again. In fact, in the West, when March 25th falls between Palm Sunday and Low Sunday, the celebration of the Annunciation is postponed to the Monday after Low Sunday. On the other hand, the Orthodox Churches do not transfer the feast and we once experienced a full festive celebration of the Annunciation on the morning of Holy Saturday--a complicated affair both liturgically and emotionally, but also very powerful.

 
J.S. Bach, Magnificat in D (first movement)
performed by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Soloists
conducted by Ton Koopman

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