A Few Niceties of the Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the great feast of the Annunciation of Our Most Holy Lady. With her famous Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,the Ever-Virgin Mary agreed to serve the Sacrament of our salvation and opened the way for the Incarnation. The church has given prominence to this Good News with a dedicated feast day and liturgical celebrations. In this article we will speak about how the holiday of the  Annunciation was originated and discuss some of its interesting features and related facts. 

The Event and the Assumed Date

The event of the Annunciation is described by St Luke (Luke 1: 26-38). Some legends recorded in the apocryphal sources (the Gospel of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew) and reflected in iconography mention two Annunciations – small and great. According to these sources, the first greeting of the archangel took place at the well (a reference to the story of Rebecca and the servant Eliezer). It happened for the second time in the house, where Mary, according to her lot, was spinning the curtain for the Holy of Holies (details also appear with the reading of the prophet Isaiah about the miraculous Virgin). Later, this story was interpreted as preparing Mary for bearing the Body of Christ (hence the parallel with the Veil of the Temple (see Heb. 10: 19-20). These images inspired the great poet St Andrew of Crete: The spiritual purple of Emmanuel was woven inside thy womb as if from scarlet silk, O Most-pure Virgin. (Great Canon, Ode 8). By agreeing to God’s Plan, Mary heals Eve’s sin, becoming the New Eve (hence the existing Latin wordplay EVA – AVE).

In the 4th century the Nativity of Christ began to be celebrated on December 25th. This tradition originated in the West, and then also became widespread in the East. Since the duration of pregnancy is 9 months, over time it was decided to celebrate the Annunciation on March 25.  The Annunciation was thus considered the time when the mysterious Conception of the Lord from the Holy Spirit took place. However, there is another interpretation. According to ancient traditions, reflected in the creations attributed to Sts Athanasius of Alexandria (Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem // PG. 28. Col. 632) and Anastasius of Antioch, the Annunciation took place on March 25, the day when man was created, since it was believed that the Creation of the world took place on the day of the vernal equinox (De Pascha Computus). Because of the original sin, it was necessary that the New Adam was conceived on the day of the creation of the Old Adam. This legend was reinforced by the conviction still prevalent among the Jews that the great prophets were conceived and died on the same day. Christ was crucified on Nisan 14, the day that, according to the Roman calendar, fell on March 25. Early Western writers such as Tertullian (Adv. Jud. 8) and St Hippolytus of Rome (In Dan. IV.23) also mention this date as the day of Christ’s death. Later, the Council of Nicaea (325) decided to celebrate Easter on Sunday, tying it also to the lunar calendar, while the Annunciation remained on March 25.

Establishing the Holiday

The first images of the Annunciation date back to the late 2nd century and are located in the Catacombs of Rome, but the holiday itself was most likely introduced no earlier than the 4th century. When St Helena began to build numerous temples in places associated with the Lord’s life, a basilica was also built in Nazareth, in the supposed place of the Archangel’s appearance to the holy Virgin. The construction of the basilica may have influenced the appearance of the holiday itself. In the beginning of the 8th century the Armenian writer Grigoris Arsharuni testified that the feast of the Annunciation was established by St Cyril of Jerusalem, i.e. as early as in mid-4th century.  However, according to the oldest Armenian Lectionaries, reflecting the liturgical practice of the 5th century Jerusalem, no independent celebration of the Annunciation had yet been introduced (Conybeare. P. 517). The event of the Annunciation was still celebrated on the 4th day of the Epiphany, i.e. on January 9. Most likely, the holiday became a separate celebration both in the West and in the East in the 7th century.

Liturgical Features 

The 7th century is marked by a wide celebration of the holiday, which is indirectly evidenced by the Quinisext Council (691). By canon 52, the Fathers of the Council prohibit celebrating a full liturgy in Great Lent, with the exception of Saturdays and Sundays, as well as the Annunciation Day, even if it falls on weekdays. That indicates a high status of the holiday. The tradition of moving important saints’ feast days from weekdays of Great Lent to weekends has long been practiced by the Church in order to commemorate them with the celebration of the Eucharist. There is an assumption (Ivan A. Karabinov) that before the Quinisext Council, the Annunciation had been typically transferred to the Saturday of the Laudation of the Mother of God, and that the Akathist itself was composed for this holiday. 

A curious detail is the tradition of certain Western rites (Mosarabian and Ambrosian) to transfer the celebration of the Annunciation to the Advent period despite the holiday itself being on March 25. The 1st rule of the 10th Council of Toledo (656) decreed to sing the Liturgy on December 18, i.e. a week before Christmas, so as not to violate the penitential order of Great Lent. Similar ideas were voiced in the East. For example, the Eastern Syrian rite developed a 6-week cycle consisting of the pre- and afterfeast of the Annunciation (4th Sunday before and 2nd after Christmas) and dedicating the second Sunday before Christmas to the actual holiday. Byzantium took a different path, deciding not to move the day of the Annunciation, even if it fell on Holy Friday (festive liturgy is still performed) or Easter itself (the so-called Kiriopascha). As a result, a system of complex rubrics was developed (see Mark’s chapters) indicating the order of worship services in such delicate cases. 

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the greatest Christian holidays, not only magnifying the Theotokos, but also revealing something amazing about God to us. The Lord respects our freedom so much that he does not dare to begin healing the Fall of mankind until we ourselves give our consent. “Mary says yesto God, and the word of creation brings down the Creator into the world(St Filaret (Drozdov), Word 23), opening the way to salvation to every creature.

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