The Annunciation: the true Feast of the Incarnation

V.  Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae
R.  et concepit de Spiritu Sancto

This short versicle and response, the first of three recited at the stroke of noon throughout the Catholic world for numerous centuries, has a plain meaning: at the announcement of Gabriel, the Virgin Mary conceived of Jesus. The third of these versicle-response pairs supplies and even greater depth of meaning:

V.   et Verbum caro factum est
R.  et habitavit in nobis

Thus, in one short prayer, the Western spiritual tradition considers these three things as inseparably bound: (1) the message of the angel, (2) the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin’s womb, and (3) the fact of God becoming flesh. The Angelus therefore makes explicit what all of Christendom had known in its heart since the very beginning: God began his human life, as do we, at the moment of conception. Human life begins at conception.

Today, 25 March, nine months before Christmas, Solemnity of the Annunciation, is the true feast of the Incarnation. At Mary’s humble fiat, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, true God, condescended to become one of us. So ancient and venerable is this feast that we celebrate it with our brethren of the Greek rites on the same day (though unlike we Latins, the Greeks keep this day as a feast of precept). The Byzantine hymn of the day (troparion) begins like this: “Today is the beginning of our salvation and the revelation of the eternal mystery,” thus underscoring again the importance of Christ’s conception as the true commencement of his earthly life.

Even older than this Greek troparion is a passage from the mighty Pope St. Leo the Great, which forms the basis of this feast’s postcommunio prayer at Mass:

Fides enim catholica sicut damnat Nestorum, qui in uno domino nostro Iesu Christo duas ausus est praedicare personas, ita damnat etiam Eutychen cum Dioscoro, qui ab unigenito Deo Verbo negant in utero Virginis matris veritatem carnis humanae susceptam.

(The Catholic faith, just as it condemned Nestorius, who preached the double persoonhood in our one Lord Jesus Christ, so too does it condemn Eutychius with Dioscorus, who deny the truth that God the Word received human flesh in the womb of the Virgin mother.)

There is another connection between the Feast of the Annunciation and the Angelus prayer: as this short devotion spread throughout the Roman Church, to its conclusion was appended the prayer we all know today: “Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord…” This, of course, is taken word for word from the Postcommunion prayer from the Mass of the Annunciation, and is heard regularly by the throng of faithful who gather in St. Peter’s Square on Sundays at noon to hear the Pope:

Gratiam tuam, quaesumus Domine, mentibus nostris infunde, ut, qui Angelo nuntiante, Christi Filii tui incarnationem cognovimus, per passionem eius et crucem, ad resurrectionis gloriam perducamur.

Life begins at conception: the testimony of the entire Catholic tradition, Greek and Latin, is clear. In ages past, this day was also a Holy Day of Obligation for the Roman Rite, though in recent years it has tragically fallen victim to secularizing tendencies even within the Church. As a result, Christ’s coming to earth has been associated overwhelmingly with Christmas, to the detriment of the Annunciation. This trend must be reversed for two reasons: to develop a proper and robust theology of woman, and to give a firm liturgical and doctrinal support to the pro-life movement. To further these ends, the Feast of the Annunciation should be declared a Holy Day of Obligation for the whole Church.

1.  A point of departure for a “theology of woman”

Apparently unsatisfied with popular trends in “feminist” theology which has seen a movement toward “clericalization of women”, Pope Francis has increased his calls for a true Theology of Woman. In his famous post-World Youth Day interview, he mentioned that the Church needed to develop a more robust theology of woman, which hitherto has not taken place, in his opinion. Some interpreted his comments to mean an openness, for example, to the idea of women Cardinals, or to female clergy in general. Of course, he had to clarify, saying Le donne nella Chiesa devono essere valorizzate, non clericalizzate, facendole magari cardinali— women in the Church must be valued, not clericalized, such as perhaps making them Cardinals. Pope Francis takes as his model Our Lady, “who is more important than the Apostles… who makes the Church grow… thinking of the Church without women is like thinking of the Apostolic College without Mary”.  He does not enumerate in detail what these steps towards a greater appreciation of women in the Church means, but will let these discussions take place in the upcoming Synod.

Saying that Mary is more important that the Apostles is certainly nothing new: the Litany of Loreto lists “Queen of Apostles” as one of her many titles. Mary is indeed “blessed among all woman” by virtue of her fiat, her obedience to the divine plan and in honor of her generative power to help bring forth the Savior according to the flesh. By her pregnancy and bearing of Jesus, she blessed every pregnancy and birth. When women today become mothers, they share in the generative power of Mary to bring forth new human life with all its possibility for goodness and divinity. In a special way, mothers participate in the creative power of God himself, for they were intended in his design for a special role as bearers of succeeding generations and proximate instruments for the propagation of the human race.

These reflections, of course, need further development. The challenge is in striking a balance between clericalizing tendencies on one hand, and the tendency to limit women to the traditional role of mothers on the other hand, important though it be. We can, however, distill the decisive point: Mary is the model par excellence of womanhood. Her silent though steadfast witness throughout Jesus’ life, all the way to Calvary, has much to teach us about the true nature of woman– and this all began with her fiat, her “yes” to the message of the angel at Nazareth.

2.  Reinforce the Church’s support for life

Respect and veneration for woman’s childbearing and generative power leads to the second reason for a restoration of the Annunciation as a Holy Day of Obligation: to reinforce the Church’s support for human life from the moment of conception. In 1995, John Paul II astutely chose this feast as the date in which to publish the encyclical Evangelium Vitae on the total sacrality of human life, especially the innocent unborn. Since this feast also celebrates a Biblically-attested event (unlike other Marian feasts not explicitly found in the Bible), elevating the Annunciation to a feast of precept would bind Scriptural narrative, perennial liturgical practice, and the venerable doctrinal tradition into a single, unified, unequivocal testimony on the Church’s opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell procedures, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Christ became human not at his birth, but as Pope Leo I in the fifth century already pointed out, in the womb of the Virgin Mary; and as the Greeks say, “This day is the beginning of our salvation”. May we celebrate this fact through solemn, public worship of the highest order, giving thanks to God for the gift of his Incarnation, by saying:

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, so that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of the Resurrection.

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