ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH RAYA of blessed memory tells how, as a student, he visited his village priest during school breaks. On one visit he noted the Gospel book in the priest’s icon corner opened to the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Returning on his next break a few months later, the young Joseph saw the Gospel opened to the same page. When Joseph asked the priest why he kept reading the same story, the priest answered that one could read this passage every day and never exhaust its meaning.
The Gospel passage tells of Gabriel’s message from God to the Virgin Mary and her response, “Let it be so according to your word.” With her acceptance the eternal Word of God was conceived in her womb. It has been said that this event, the conception of Christ, even more than His birth changed the course of the planet. When the Word of God assumed human nature it was not at His birth, but at His conception, when He took our nature in the form of a fetus in the womb of the Theotokos. His birth revealed the mystery of His incarnation to the world but it was at His conception that this mystery was accomplished.
Annunciation: the First Feast?
Much has been written about dating the birth of Christ. In the twelfth century, the Syriac theologian Dionysius Bar-Salibi wrote that December 25 was established in the West as the feast of Christ’s Nativity to coincide with the pagan Roman celebration of the Invincible Sun. This concept became popular in the West particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More recent scholarship has shown that Christmas had been observed for years before Emperor Aurelian established the pagan festival in AD 274.
It was assumed that the date of the Annunciation was set in relation to the date of Christmas. Today it is recognized that the opposite was more likely the case. The ancient world put a great emphasis on Coherence: the underlying unity of related things. Already by AD 200 Christians were stressing that Christ suffered His passion on the same day He was conceived. His coming and the purpose of His coming were facets of the same mystery.
Tertullian of Carthage taught that the 24th of the Hebrew month Nisan (the day of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John) was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman calendar. Approximately 200 years later St Augustine of Hippo, wrote in his treatise On the Trinity that Jesus “…is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin in which He was conceived, where no mortal was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, where no one was ever laid, neither before Him nor since.”
Like so many aspects of traditional Christian practice, this notion of coherence is also reflected in Jewish thought. Rabbis in the second century AD are recorded as teaching that the month of Nisan was the time of God’s decisive interventions in the world. “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born… and in Nisan they will be redeemed in time to come.” Their teaching that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year would certainly resound with St Athanasius who wrote, “The renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word who made it in the beginning” (On the Incarnation, 1).
Thus early Christians and their Jewish contemporaries used the calendar to express a spiritual teaching: the unity of God’s plan for the human race. God does not work in our chronological time. There are no calendars in heaven. God’s work is one; He creates and renews and refreshes His creation in one eternal act, in what we might cal “really real” time. In stressing the unity of Christ’s incarnation and His passion these Christian thinkers were proclaiming the oneness of God’s plan for our salvation.
While the rabbis looked for redemption yet to come, Christians saw it effected in the incarnation of the eternal Word. “What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind so that through it we might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own person because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, who could recreate man after the Image” (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 13).
Two Contemporary Developments
The mystery we celebrate on March 25 has been recognized as an important milestone for two very different groups of people. Many pro-life parents throughout the world have begun to celebrate their children’s First Days, nine months before their birthdays. In this they are rejecting the secular culture’s contention that a fetus is a “part” of the mother which only “becomes human” later in its development.
Christian pro-lifers accordingly keep the Feast of the Annunciation as the First Day of the Incarnate Word. They encourage its observance as a sign that the Christian community recognize and honor the conception and prenatal life of the Lord. If believers do not celebrate the conception of One who was foretold and announced by an angel, they reason, why should the world esteem the coming of its unwanted children?
In 1998 Argentina became the first nation to commemorate March 25 as the Day of the Unborn Child. Since then many other countries with a Hispanic culture (e,g, Central and South America, the Philippines) have done the same. In Spain the day was given a wider focus. Their International Day for Life encourages recognition of the dangers of euthanasia, embryo experimentation and other challenges to the sanctity of life. In the United States groups including the American Life League, the Knights of Columbus and Priests for Life have prompted observance and public recognition of this day.
In 2010 Christians and Muslims in Lebanon responded to the hostilities between these groups in other countries by joining forces to declare March 25 a national holiday celebrating the place of the Virgin Mary in Christianity and in Islam. The initiative for this Islamic-Christian Day came from a Sunni Sheikh, Mohammed Nokkari, and an inter-faith group centered in the College of Notre Dame in Jamhour, near Beirut. Their annual gathering on the Annunciation, “Together Around Our Lady Mary,” led to civic recognition on the national and local level. In Beirut the plaza in front of the National Museum has been designated the “place de Marie,” featuring a stylized sculpture of the Virgin surrounded by a crescent, the international symbol of Islam.
The Virgin Mary is mentioned 36 times in the Koran which teaches that the Lord Jesus was born of a Virgin, whom they call “our Lady Mary,” preferred by God above all the women in creation.