Feasts of Our Lady: The Annunciation
“And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a Virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the Virgin’s name was Mary.” Thus begins the famous Missus est Gospel, which recounts the beginning of our Redemption, the Incarnation of the Divine Word in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, or “Lady Day.”
The Historical Date
The Annunciation took place on March 25, and knowledge of its date is considered as coming from the Apostles themselves. This date was undoubtedly known in the early Church, particularly in regard to the Nativity, and even as late as the fifth century, it is certainly well-established. St. Augustine (†430) in De Trinitate comments on the interval of 276 days, inclusively, between the Incarnation and octavo kalendas ianuarias (the eighth of the kalends of January, which is December 25). Therefore, he takes as a given that the date of the Nativity is the 25th day of December, and by consequence that the actual date of the Annunciation is likewise fixed to the 25th day of March. Guéranger remarks, “To March 25 will correspond, nine months later, December 25, the day on which will be manifested to the world the miracle as yet only known to heaven and to the humble Virgin.” He mentions that the hour of St. Gabriel’s embassy to Our Lady was midnight. Venerable Mary of Agreda remarks that the Holy Virgin was at that moment alone and absorbed in highest contemplation.
The location of the Annunciation was Nazareth. The root of the name (NSR) means flower, to blossom, or to guard/to keep. Thus is the name chosen by the Most High for the town where the prophecy of Isaias would be accomplished, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root” (Is. 11:1). St. Luke, after the Finding in the Temple, reads, “And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And His mother kept all these words in her heart” (Lk. 2:51). Nazareth: where the shoot of Salvation springs up, blossoms, and flowers, a mystery kept and guarded in the Immaculate Heart.
The site in Nazareth is the Holy House of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The house, in fact, abutted a small natural grotto which was incorporated to the house. This Holy House and the Grotto both have been venerated by generations of Catholics for two millennia. Until 1291, the house remained on its original site in Nazareth, and several churches were built upon it over the centuries. An anonymous pilgrim from Piacenza, Italy, writes of the church he visited there in A.D. 370. Not long after, a large church in the Byzantine style was erected at the site with an atrium and three naves, but when the first Crusaders arrived, they found that it had been devastated by Muslims. Tancred, Crusader Prince of Galilee (†1112), erected a “large, high church with three altars,” measuring 250 feet long by 100 feet wide, even larger than the current church, and provided exquisite vestments for the shrine, as noted by William of Tyre (†1184).
The Crusader basilica, too, would be profaned by the Muslim horde in 1263, although the Holy House itself survived the devastation. In 1730, the Franciscans of the Holy Land with much difficulty caused by the local non-Christian authorities, finally were able to erect a fitting church over the Grotto, which was very beautiful, with an exquisite altar of Our Lady surmounting the Grotto shrine, as shown in the sketches made by the British artist David Roberts during his visit there in 1844. Unfortunately this jewel of a church was razed in 1955 in order to make way for a modern structure which, however lacking in beauty, at least left the Grotto untouched. In the course of the 1955 excavations, ancient Christian graffiti and decorations were discovered, including an inscription reading “Christ, the Son of God” and another reading in Greek “XE MAPIA,” an abbreviation of the Hail Mary inscribed by a pilgrim in the first centuries. The excavations also revealed, abutting the Grotto, the exact foundations where the Holy House once stood.
At the end of the 13th century, Providence saw fit to preserve the Holy House from any further danger by an outstanding miracle. On May 10, 1291, the Holy House was raised up from its foundations by angels and transported across the Mediterranean to Trsat (Tersatto), in modern-day Croatia, where the house remained for three years. As the Muslims advanced into the Balkans as well, shepherds witnessed a host of angels once again moving the house across the Adriatic into Italy on December 10, 1294, where it finally came to rest in Loreto. The liturgical calendar lists on this date the Translation of the Holy House of Loreto, as described in the Martyrology. Evidence has always shown that the structure of the Holy House of Loreto, miraculously, does not rest on any solid foundation which could possibly support it, but merely touches the ground. As cited above, the 1955 excavations at Nazareth unearthed the original foundations of the house, which were found to exactly match the dimensions of the Holy House of Loreto. The Holy House and the Grotto, once united in Nazareth, can both be said to be the dwelling where the Annunciation occurred. Both places bear the golden inscription on their altars: Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est, Here the Word was Made Flesh.
Besides the Gospels, the earliest traces of the Annunciation in the liturgy are in the ancient formulae of the Credo, such as the brief baptismal credo of the Armenians: “We believe in the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, in the annunciation of Gabriel, [in the conception of Mary], in the nativity of Christ,” etc. There are also artistic depictions such as the Annunciation image in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome, which dates to the early third century, and is considered to be the oldest surviving image of Our Lady apart from the images painted by St. Luke.
It would not be until the fifth century that the Annunciation would be solemnized with a particular feast. The reason is that the ancient Church united the Incarnation so closely with the Nativity of Christ that the mysteries were celebrated as one. In the fifth century, the Nativity and the Christmas cycle were given a greater prominence in the liturgical calendar, and the Annunciation began to be celebrated separately on the day of the event itself, March 25.
The Feast Develops
There is documentation of the festal liturgy of the Annunciation in the Eastern branch of the Church in the Chronicon Paschale of Alexandria (A.D. 624) and the decrees of the Council in Trullo (A.D. 692). In the West, documentation appears in the Gelasian Sacramentary, which provides three collects for the feast and for vespers. The Council of Toledo (A.D. 656) affirms that the feast is celebrated “by us in many churches, and in lands distant from us.” Around A.D. 670, Pope Sergius I approved a litany for use in the Roman liturgy and procession of the Annunciation. This procession was still in use at least until the end of the twelfth century. There is also another liturgical reference to the Annunciation dating to the sixth century, but this one is not a text. Rather, it is a fragment of vestment embroidery depicting the Annunciation which was once used in the private papal chapel at the Lateran Patriarchium known as the Sancta Sanctorum, at the summit of the Holy Stairs.
Having such an important feast in the penitential season of Lent has been no small issue, because since the earliest centuries of the Church, every solemnity was rigorously forbidden during Lent. Different approaches have been followed in consequence. At Constantinople, the Council in Trullo made an exception for the Annunciation. It declared that the feast is immovable, and that it would be celebrated on its proper day, March 25, even if this were to fall on Saturday or Sunday. The feast remained in Lent also in Rome, even if the feast is transferred to the nearest possible day when it falls on a Sunday or in Holy Week.
In Spain, another approach was followed. One of the Councils of Toledo considered that “the feast cannot be celebrated fittingly, as it is seen to fall among the days of Lent (eadem festivitas non potest celebrari condigne, cum interdum quadragesimae dies videtur incumbere).” The solution was to fix the date of the feast for the Mozarabic Rite to December 18, one week before Christmas: “the eighth day before which the Lord is born, the day of his Mother will be held as most celebrated and outstanding (ante octavum diem, quo natus est Dominus, Genitricis quoque eius dies habeatur celeberrimus et praeclarus)”. The Ambrosian Rite of Milan adopted this custom from Spain, but also allowed a second feast on March 25, until this was suppressed by St. Charles Borromeo. The Roman Rite conceded to the custom of its Latin Rite cousins to a minor degree in the seventeenth century with the institution of a Mass on December 18 known as the Expectatio partus Beatae Mariae Virginis, the Expectation of the Delivery of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Our Lady’s Fiat
The Fathers of the Church put special emphasis on the role of Our Lady as the second Eve, whose obedience repairs for the former’s disobedience. The Vespers hymn describes it succinctly: “Thou that didst receive the Ave from Gabriel’s lips, confirm us in peace, and so let Eva be changed into an Ave of blessing for us.” St. Bernard describes Our Lady as the salutary woman given to us, contrasting with the woman given to Adam, who induced him to sin: “The Woman, whom Thou hast given me, O Lord, hath given me of the Tree of life, and I have eaten thereof; and it is sweeter than honey to my mouth, for by it Thou hast given me life.”
The triumph of Redemption moves toward its fulfillment in virtue of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s consent, her fiat. As Guéranger writes in The Liturgical Year,
“A Virgin is a Mother, and Mother of God; and it is this Virgin’s consenting to the divine will that has made her conceive by power of the Holy Ghost…; it gives to the almighty God a means whereby He may, in a manner worthy of His majesty, triumph over satan, who hitherto seemed to have prevailed against the divine plan….The result of so glorious a triumph is that Mary is to be superior not only to the rebel angels, but to the whole human race, yea, to all the angels of heaven. Seated on her exalted throne, she, the Mother of God, is to be the Queen of all creation.…In heaven, the very Cherubim and Seraphim reverently look up to Mary, and deem themselves honored when she smiles upon them, or employs them in the execution of any of her wishes, for she is the Mother of their God….Therefore it is that we, the children of Adam, who have been snatched by Mary’s obedience from the power of hell, solemnize this day of the Annunciation.”
The antiphons for Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation, when joined all together, form a “little Gospel,” as it were, succinctly recapitulating the miraculous event: “The angel Gabriel was sent to Mary, a virgin espoused to Joseph—Hail, full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women—Fear not, Mary for thou hast found grace with the Lord; behold thou shalt conceive and bring forth a Son—The Lord shall give unto Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign forever and ever—Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word.”