On the Annunciation and the end of Lent – 2023

“Surprise!” Gabriel makes his announcement to Mary  and she shrinks back in terror…

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Saturday, April 1, 2023 – Last Saturday, March 25, was the Feast day set aside for the Annunciation. The full and formal title is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the Angel Gabriel gave Mary a big surprise. It offers a good metaphor, of how the early Church Fathers sometimes “figured it backwards.” And it all started with the birth of Jesus. 

First, those early Church Fathers decided they’d celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. (For reasons explained later.) Then figured back nine months. Since they said Jesus was born on December 25, He had to be “conceived” the previous March 25. That’s where the Annunciation comes in. It celebrates “the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus,” Son of God, “marking his Incarnation.” From there it’s not much of a leap to conclude that Conception and Annunciation had to happen the same day.  “She would conceive” became “she did conceive.”

Which brings up how Mary probably reacted, as shown in the painting above by Rossetti:

…look at Mary’s expression… This is not one of acquiescence or pleasure. This is a look almost of horror at what she has just been told… She is painfully thin and her hesitance and sad look tinged with fear endears her to us. 

Or consider what Garry Wills said: “For me, the most convincing pictures or sculptures of the Annunciation to Mary show her in a state of panic … shrinking off from the angel, looking cornered by him.” He noted especially some 14th century paintings, “where Mary is made so faint by the angel’s words that she sways back and must grab a pillar to keep herself upright.”

Which is one way of saying that being God’s Chosen isn’t always a bowl of cherries. That’s pretty much what Simeon told Mary in Luke 2:35, that “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” (When she presented the eight-day old Jesus in the Temple.) No wonder she shrunk back in terror.

Something to ponder during this Lenten period of “prayer, penance and self-denial.”

As for early Church Fathers choosing December 25 as when Jesus was born, there is one familiar old wives’ tale. That the day was a pagan holiday, Saturnalia, which the Fathers chose “to make Christianity chime with a polytheistic society already attuned to December 25 revelry.” But an article from the Biblical Archaeology Society says that couldn’t be true:

Hippolytus was a Christian author who wrote in the early third century AD, and Saturnalia and the feast of Sol were not celebrated on December 25 that early in Roman history; Saturnalia never was, and the feast of Sol only came to be later. So Hippolytus clearly could not have chosen the date to please pagan sentiments.

Hippolytus calculated December 25 as Jesus’ birthday before 235 A.D., before those “pagan sentiments” even existed. (He died in 235 A.D., and the Feast of Sol didn’t start until 274 A.D.)

Then there’s Why December 25? | Christian History | Christianity Today. It said the “eventual choice” of December 25 was made “perhaps as early as 273,” well after Hyppolytus died, and that early Fathers “decided to commandeer the date,” introducing a new festival, because “pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity.”

Of more interest is the idea that some leaders opposed celebrating Jesus’ birthday at all: “Origen (c.185-c.254) preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.” But these are called Rabbit Trails. More to the point, note that the day coincides with the “northern vernal equinox:”

An equinox occurs twice a year, around 20 March and 22 September.  The word itself has several related definitions.  The oldest meaning is the day when daytime and night are of approximately equal duration.  The word equinox comes from this definition, derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).

So the Annunciation is celebrated about the time of the vernal equinox. (Vernal from the Latin word for “spring.”) In turn the birth of Jesus is celebrated about the time of the winter solstice. (The summer solstice is the year’s longest day, the winter solstice the shortest.)

Which just goes to show that the Christian history hasn’t been a smooth, painless road, even with Jesus pointing the way. Or as Job 5:7 put it, “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Which brings up the matter of the Incarnation. As Wikipedia put it:

The Incarnation … is the belief that [Jesus], “became flesh” by being conceived in the womb of Mary…  [The Son of God] took on a human body and nature and became both man and God… [I]ts clearest teaching is in John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” The Incarnation is commemorated and celebrated each year at Christmas, and also reference can be made to the Feast of the Annunciation; “different aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation” are celebrated at Christmas and the Annunciation.

Which brings up tomorrow, Palm Sunday. It starts Holy Week, which in turn marks Lent’s “beginning of the end.*” That week ends in the triumph of Easter, and begins with “Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” But in between comes the seeming tragedy of Good Friday. Which just goes to show how God can transform our lives as well, even from seeming tragedy.

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 “Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem,” marking the beginning of Holy Week… 

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The upper image is courtesy of Rossetti Annunciation – Image Results. See indented quotation is from The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – my daily art display.

The Book of Common Prayer reference. The “corporate-mystical” prayer is on page 339, the post-communion prayer for Holy Eucharist, Rite I.

I borrowed from past posts, including 2015’s The Annunciation “gets the ball rolling,” and The Annunciation (2022) – and Mary “shrinking back.”

Re: Luke 2:35, and “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” From the NASB 1995 translation, the New American Standard Bible 1995 (NASB1995).

The full “Biblical Archaeology” citation is December 25th and Christmas – Biblical Archaeology Society. Also, aside from Hippolytus of Rome, there was also a Hippolytus of Athens, a figure in Greek mythology, and the Hippolytus, the subject of the play by Euripides.

Re: “Beginning of the end.” A feeble attempt at a clever allusion to a Quote by Winston S. Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” (After England’s victory at El Alamein, North Africa.)

The lower image is courtesy of Palm Sunday Paintings – Image Results.

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