Annunciation

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Annunciation

1. the New Testament the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26--38)
2. the festival commemorating this, held on March 25 (Lady Day)

Annunciation

Annunciation means "announcement." When spelled with a capital "A," the word refers to the announcement made by Gabriel, God's messenger angel, to the Virgin Mary, telling her that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit whom she should call Jesus (Luke 1:26-28). By the early Middle Ages the Church had established a feast day to commemorate this angelic announcement.

In the middle of the fourth century, Church officials in Rome created a new festival to honor the birth of Jesus. They scheduled this festival, which we now call Christmas, on December 25. Eventually December 25 gained widespread acceptance as the actual date on which Jesus had been born, implying that Mary must have become pregnant nine months earlier, on March 25. According to the astronomical calculations used by the ancient Romans, the spring equinox also fell on that day (see also Winter Solstice). By the eighth century the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on March 25, was firmly established in western Europe.

As Mary's pregnancy marked the beginning of a new era for Christians, many medieval kingdoms also chose March 25 as the day on which they began their new year (see also Kalends; New Year's Day). In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII called for calendar reforms which included switching New Year's Day to January 1 (see also Old Christmas Day). Nevertheless, several centuries passed before most European countries had adopted the reformed, Gregorian calendar.

Many Christians still recognize March 25 as a religious holiday, although they have slightly different names for the observance. Roman Catholics currently refer to the feast as the "Annunciation of the Lord," the Orthodox know it as the "Annunciation of the Mother of God," and many Anglicans call it the "Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary." The English also call the festival "Lady Day." The Feast of the Annunciation often occurs during Lent. Those Christians who fast during Lent, for example, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, are allowed to modify the fast on this day. Over the centuries the Annunciation became a favorite scene for western European painters interested in depicting the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The scene also appears frequently in stained glass windows and other church decorations. Many famous artists have bequeathed us their versions of the Annunciation, including Robert Campin (c. 1378-1444), Fra Angelico (c. 1400-1455), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), El Greco (1451-1614), Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), and Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905). In these paintings Mary often appears to be reading or spinning when the angel arrives, activities which represent her piety. A container of water may sit beside her, or the angel may offer her lilies, both of which symbolize her purity. The Holy Spirit commonly takes shape as a descending dove or as a ray of light streaming through the window.

Further Reading

Auld, William Muir. Christmas Tidings. 1933. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the ChristianChurch. Second edition, revised. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984. The Glory and Pageantry of Christmas. Maplewood, N.J.: Time-Life Books, 1963. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. ---. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Rouvelas, Marilyn. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Bethesda, Md.: Nea Attiki Press, 1993. Stuhlmueller, C. "Annunciation." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Annunciation

Annunciation of the Lord, Annunciation of the Mother of
God, Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, Lady Day

The feast of the Annunciation often falls during Lent, bringing a little bit of Christmas joy into that otherwise austere season. The word annunciation means "announcement." When spelled with a capital "A" it refers to the announcement made by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, telling her that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit whom she should name Jesus (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Christians commemorate this event with a festival that falls on March 25. The formal names given to this observance differ by denomination. Some Christians, including Roman Catholics, know the feast as the "Annunciation of the Lord," the Orthodox call it the "Annunciation of the Mother of God," and some Anglicans refer to it as the "Annunciation of the Virgin Mary."

Selecting the Date

Christian officials most likely derived the date of the Annunciation from the date of Christmas. Church leaders fixed the date of Christmas in the fourth century, selecting December 25 as the day on which to honor the birth of Christ. Once this date had been determined it then followed that Jesus must have been conceived nine months earlier, on March 25.

In the ancient Roman world both December 25 and March 25 marked important events in the sun's yearly cycle. According to the Julian calendar system which the Romans adopted in 45 B.C., the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, fell on December 25. What's more, the spring equinox, the spring date on which day and night are of equal length, occurred on March 25. Due to an error in the Julian calendar system, however, the events of the solar year slowly fell behind the dates on the calendar. For example, when the Council of Nicaea, an important gathering of the early Christian leaders, met in 325 A.D., the winter solstice was falling on December 21 and the spring equinox on March 21.

Although the events of the solar year were slipping behind the calendar, the Romans continued to recognize December 25 as the official date of the winter solstice. Some scholars suspect that early Christian leaders selected December 25 as the date on which to celebrate the Nativity of Christ because the Romans already celebrated the birth of the sun god on that date. Nevertheless, certain early Christian thinkers proposed other, more complicated explanations for the selection of December 25. They based these explanations both on their interpretation of Christian scripture and on then-popular beliefs in the significance of round numbers. According to one scholar, early Church leaders figured out the date of Jesus' birth from the date early Christian tradition assigned to his death: March 25. These leaders wanted to come up with a round number for Jesus' age at death, so they assumed he had also been conceived on March 25. Therefore, he must have been born nine months later on December 25. Some scholars believe that this line of thinking lies behind the selection of December 25 as Christmas day.

Other early Christians thinkers emphasized the idea that Jesus is a kind of new creation. The Bible tells that God's first act of creation was to bring forth light, an act which separated light from darkness. These early Christian leaders reasoned, therefore, that God must have created the world at the time of the spring equinox, when the world is separated into two equal halves of light and darkness. Jesus, as a kind of new creation, must also have come into being at the time of the spring equinox. Therefore he must have been conceived on March 25 and born on December 25. The idea that Jesus had been born on the winter solstice made sense to them because of several important Bible passages describing the Messiah as "the sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2) and Jesus as "the light of the world" (John 8:12). These passages led them to see the sun as a symbol for Jesus. Since the winter solstice may be thought of as the sun's birthday, it seemed an especially appropriate date for Jesus' birth.

Some writers assert that Eastern Christians, those Christians living in the Middle East, eastern Europe and north Africa, began observing a festival in honor of the Annunciation as early as the fifth century. By the eighth century this festival, celebrated on March 25, had established itself as an important observance throughout western Europe.

The Annunciation as New Year's Day

According to Christian doctrine the Annunciation honors the conception of Christ and therefore the dawn of a new era. Mindful of this connection between the Annunciation and new beginnings, a number of medieval European kingdoms began their new year on March 25. The idea that the new year begins in March also harks back to the ancient Roman tradition of starting the new year on March 1. Julius Caesar's (100-44 B.C.) reform of the Roman calendar, resulting in the introduction of the Julian calendar, derailed this old tradition by declaring January 1 to be New Year's Day. In the year 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered Christians to adopt the Gregorian calendar, which, among other things, proclaimed January 1 to be New Year's Day (for more on the Gregorian calendar, see Easter, Date of). Roman Catholic countries promptly switched to the new and more accurate calendar. Protestant and Orthodox countries delayed, for fear of seeming to accept the Pope's authority.

Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar several hundred years later, in 1752. This decision effectively installed the Gregorian calendar in her American colonies as well. Before that time the English recognized March 25 as their official New Year's Day, a custom adopted sometime around the twelfth century in honor of the Annunciation. The English also invented an informal and affectionate name for the festival, dubbing it "Lady Day." In past times the holiday not only served as New Year's Day, but also as one of the quarter days of the year, days on which rents came due and employers hired and dismissed help.

Prophecies

Because the date of Easter and its related festivals shift about on the calendar, they may occasionally coincide with the Annunciation. In past times some people found these coincidences ominous. In the Middle Ages a prophecy surfaced warning that the world would end in the year 970, when the Annunciation occurred on Good Friday. Needless to say, that disaster did not occur. Neither did it in the years 981 and 992, when the Annunciation again fell on Good Friday. Several hundred years later an Irish prophecy predicted that the end of the world would occur in the year in which the Annunciation fell on Easter Sunday. Records dating as far back as the early seventeenth century reveal that a variation of this prophecy was known in England in the form of a rhymed couplet:

When Our Lord lights in Our Lady's lap, Then let England look for a clap. (Blackburn and Holford-Strevens, 134)

In this instance "clap" means ill fortune. King Charles I did experience serious political defeats in 1627 and was executed as an enemy of the nation in 1649, years in which Easter Sunday and the Annunciation coincided. Nevertheless, other years in which the two festivals fell on the same date - 1722, 1733, 1744, 1883, 1894, and 1951 - proved relatively disaster-free for England. The prophecy can again be tested in 2035 and 2046, when Easter will fall on March 25. When this occurs, however, both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church will transfer the celebration of the Annunciation to a different day.

Lore and Customs

According to the Gregorian calendar system now used throughout the world, the spring equinox falls around March 21. Thus the Annunciation still occurs near the time of the spring equinox. As a result many European folk traditions associate the Annunciation with natural events occurring at that time of year. For example, the old saying, "When Gabriel to Mary flies, this is the end of snow and ice," reminded farmers to begin sowing their summer crops on the day after the Annunciation. In addition, folk tradition named the Annunciation the "Feast of the Swallows." Around this time of year swallows return to Europe from their yearly migrations to Asia and Africa. An old Austrian saying explicitly linked this event with the Annunciation:

When Gabriel does the message bring, Return the swallows, comes the spring." (Slim, 90)

This perceived linkage led many people to call swallows "Mary's birds" and sometimes even "God's birds." Folklore followed suit, declaring it bad luck to kill a swallow or to interfere with swallows' nests. As it turns out, swallows have more than just a folkloric connection with the Virgin Mary. When European Crusaders reached the Holy Land in the Middle Ages, they found Nazareth, the town where the Annunciation took place (Luke 1:26), to be a favorite haunt of swallows.

While many Europeans associate the Annunciation with the return of a favorite bird, Swedes associate it with a special food. In Swedish the formal name for the festival is Varfrudagen, "Our Lady's Day." Over time casual pronunciation of this phrase turned it into Vaffeldagen, or "Waffle Day." Swedish tradition therefore proclaimed waffles the specialty of the day. Swedes use special heart-shaped irons to make these waffles, which symbolize the loving heart of the Virgin Mary.

Oftentimes the Annunciation falls during Lent. When it does so, Orthodox Christians relax the rules of their strict Lenten fast in celebration of the day. Fish may be eaten and Orthodox churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy, normally forbidden during the weekdays of Lent (for more on the Divine Liturgy, see also Eucharist). When the Annunciation falls during the last week of Lent, that is, during Holy Week and the Triduum, the Roman Catholic Church shifts its observance of the festival to the second Monday after Easter Sunday.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Bradshaw, Paul F. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2000. Niemann, Paul J. The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1998. Slim, Hugo. A Feast of Festivals. London, England: Marshall Pickering, 1996.

Annunciation

dove and lily
pictured with Virgin and Gabriel. [Christian Iconography: Brewer Dictionary, 645]
Elizabeth
Mary’s old cousin; bears John the Baptist. [N.T.: Luke 1:36–80]
Gabriel
messenger angel; tells Mary she will bear Christ child. [N.T.: Luke 1:26–38]
Hail, Mary
prayer adapted from the words of Gabriel to Mary announcing the coming birth of Christ. [N.T.: Luke 1:26–36]