Exactly nine months to the day before the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the annunciation Gabriel makes to Mary. Mystical significance is given to this date by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa in his "Golden Legend" written in 1275:
This blessed Annunciation happened the twentyfifth day of the month of March, on which day happened also, as well tofore as after, these things that hereafter be named. On that same day Adam, the first man, was created and fell into original sin by inobedience, and was put out of paradise terrestrial. After, the angel showed the conception of our Lord to the glorious Virgin Mary. Also that same day of the month Cain slew Abel his brother. Also Melchisedech made offering to God of bread and wine in the presence of Abraham. Also on the same day Abraham offered Isaac his son. That same day St. John Baptist was beheaded, and St. Peter was that day delivered out of prison, and St. James the more, that day beheaded of Herod. And our Lord Jesu Christ was on that day crucified, wherefore that is a day of great reverence.
It was this day on which Our Lord entered the world, and on this day, thirty-three years later, that He left it. It must be remembered that it was on this day, not Christmas, that Christ came to the world, as a baby inside Mary's womb; today is the feast of the Incarnation! The Gospel reading today is that of Luke:
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.
And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?
And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.
And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
Our Lady uttered her fiat -- her words "Let it be done to me according to thy word" -- and the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity condescended to take on a human nature and become man. God became man! Father Alban Butler writes in his "Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principle Saints" (1864) these beautiful words to indicate the import of Mary's "yes":
The world, as heaven had decreed, was not to have a Saviour till she had given her consent to the angel's proposal; she gives it, and behold the power and efficacy of her submissive fiat! That moment, the mystery of love and mercy promised to mankind four thousand years before, foretold by so many Prophets, desired by so many Saints, is wrought on earth. That moment, the Word of God is for ever united to humanity; the Soul of Jesus Christ, produced from nothing, begins to enjoy God, and to know all things past, present, and to come: that moment, God begins to have an adorer who is infinite, and the world a mediator who is omnipotent; and, to the working of this great Mystery, Mary alone is chosen to co-operate by her free assent. The prophets represent the earth as moved out of its place, and the mountains as melting away before the very Countenance of God looking down upon the world. Now that He descends in person, who would not expect that the whole heavens should be moved?
Yes, the whole heavens were moved, and we Catholics are moved yet, honoring Christ's Incarnation at each and every Mass when we kneel in gratitude during the Creed, at the words "Et homo factus est" ("And became man"). Angelus Bells at one time (and still in some places) reminded us three times a day -- morning, noon, and evening -- of St. Gabriel's announcement, Mary's fiat, and the Creator of the Sun and Moon and Stars deigning to take on a human nature, all according to prophecy:
...Hear ye therefore, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel. He shall eat butter and honey, that he may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good.
And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse [David's father], and a flower shall rise up out of his root.
It is through Our Lady that the Ancient of Days sprang from the root of Jesse according to the flesh, thereby restoring the Davidic Kingdom and coming to reign as King of Kings from the Heavenly Jerusalem.1 Tertullian (b. c. 160) writes of the significance of Mary's heritage when arguing against those who denied Christ's human nature:
Now, since He is the blossom of the stem which sprouts from the root of Jesse; since, moreover, the root of Jesse is the family of David, and the stem of the root is Mary descended from David, and the blossom of the stem is Mary's son, who is called Jesus Christ, will not He also be the fruit?
For the blossom is the fruit, because through the blossom and from the blossom every product advances from its rudimental condition to perfect fruit. What then? They, deny to the fruit its blossom, and to the blossom its stem, and to the stem its root; so that the root fails to secures for itself, by means of the stem, that special product which comes from the stem, even the blossom and the fruit; for every step indeed in a genealogy is traced from the latest up to the first, so that it is now a well-known fact that the flesh of Christ is inseparable, not merely from Mary, but also from David through Mary, and from Jesse through David. "This fruit," therefore, "of David's loins," that is to say, of his posterity in the flesh, God swears to him that "He will raise up to sit upon his throne." If "of David's loins," how much rather is He of Mary's loins, by virtue of whom He is in "the loins of David?"
St. Augustine (b. 354), in his first sermon on the New Testament, explains what Our Lord's being born of a woman teaches about the dignity of women:
But now, would He have been any less a man, if He had not been born of the Virgin Mary" one may say. "He willed to be a man; well and good; He might have so been, and yet not be born of a woman; for neither did He make the first man whom He made, of a woman."
Now see what answer I make to this. You say, Why did He choose to be born of a woman? I answer, Why should He avoid being born of a woman? Granted that I could not show that He chose to be born of a woman; do you show why He need have avoided it. But I have already said at other times, that if He had avoided the womb of a woman, it might have betokened, as it were, that He could have contracted defilement from her; but by how much He was in His own substance more incapable of defilement, by so much less had He cause to fear the woman's womb, as though He could contract defilement from it.
But by being born of a woman, He purposed to show to us some high mystery. For of a truth, brethren, we grant too, that if the Lord had willed to become man without being born of a woman, it were easy to His sovereign Majesty. For as He could be born of a woman without a man, so could He also have been born without the woman. But this hath He shown us, that mankind of neither sex might despair of its salvation, for the human sexes are male and female. If therefore being a man, which it behoved Him assuredly to be, He had not been born of a woman, women might have despaired of themselves, as mindful of their first sin, because by a woman was the first man deceived, and would have thought that they had no hope at all in Christ.
He came therefore as a man to make special choice of that sex, and was born of a woman to console the female sex, as though He would address them and say; "That ye may know that no creature of God is bad, but that unregulated pleasure perverteth it, when in the beginning I made man, I made them male and female. I do not condemn the creature which I made. See I have been born a Man, and born of a woman; it is not then the creature which I made that I condemn, but the sins which I made not."
Let each sex then at once see its honour, and confess its iniquity, and let them both hope for salvation. The poison to deceive man was presented him by woman, through woman let salvation for man's recovery be presented; so let the woman make amends for the sin by which she deceived the man, by giving birth to Christ. For the same reason again, women were the first who announced to the Apostles the Resurrection of God. The woman in Paradise announced death to her husband, and the women in the Church announced salvation to the men; the Apostles were to announce to the nations the Resurrection of Christ, the women announced it to the Apostles. Let no one then reproach Christ with His birth of a woman, by which sex the Deliverer could not be defiled, and to which it was in the purpose of the Creator to do honour.
This parallel between Eve and the Blessed Virgin is why Our Lady is referred to as "the New Eve," as Christ is referred to as "the New Adam." St. Irenaeus (b. c. 115) wrote in his Apology, Book II, Chapter XII:
Those, therefore, who allege that He took nothing from the Virgin do greatly err, since, in order that they may cast away the inheritance of the flesh, they also reject the analogy between Him and Adam.... Wherefore also Luke, commencing the genealogy with the Lord, carried it back to Adam, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of life, and not they Him. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.
As to depictions of Mary at the Annunciation, we read in "Legends of the Madonna" (1895)
It is usual to exhibit her as kneeling in prayer, or reading with a large book open on a desk before her. St. Bernard says that she was studying the book of the prophet Isaiah, and as she recited the verse, "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son," she thought within her heart, in her great humility, "How blessed the woman of whom these words are written! Would I might be but her handmaid to serve her, and allowed to kiss her feet!" when, in the same instant, the wondrous vision burst upon her, and the holy prophecy was realized in herself.
Depictions of the Annunciation also usually show St. Gabriel the Archangel handing lilies to Our Lady. Mary is often represented by lilies, and the Madonna Lily, named for her, is often called the Annunciation Lily in honor of this Feast and is a perfect ornament for the day. The Venerable Bede (A.D. 672-735) described the transluscent white petals as symbolic of Mary's pure body, and the golden anthers as a symbol of the glory of her soul when she was taken up to Heaven at the Assumption. This poetic commentary 2 by Oscar Wilde makes mention of the lily while describing the humility of the Incarnation:
Ave Maria Gratia Plena
By Oscar Wilde
Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danaë ,
Or a dread vision as when Semele,
Sickening for love and unappeased desire,
Prayed to see God's clear body, and the fire
Caught her brown limbs and slew her utterly.
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand
And over both the white wings of a dove.
And, finally, there is the beautiful story about Gabriel's words to Our Lady, also from "The Golden Legend" mentioned earlier:
Of the salutation that the angel brought to the glorious Virgin, we read an example of a noble knight which for to amend his life gave and rendered himself into an abbey of Citeaux, and, forasmuch as he was no clerk, there was assigned to him a master for to teach him, and to be with the brethren clerks, but he could nothing learn in long time that he was there save these two words: Ave Maria, which words he had so sore imprinted in his heart that alway he had them in his mouth wheresomever he was.
At last he died and was buried in the churchyard of the brethren. It happed after, that upon the burials grew a right fair fleur-de-lis, and in every flower was written in letters of gold: Ave Maria, of which miracle all the brethren were amarvelled, and they did open the sepulchre, and found that the root of this fleur-de-lis came out of the mouth of the said knight, and anon they understood that our Lord would have him honoured for the great devotion that he had to say these words. Ave Maria.
There are few special practices today that I know of, but, as with all Marian Feasts, it is a good day to pray the Magnificat, the Litany of Loreto, the Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin, the Akathistos Hymn to the Theotokos, the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, etc. (You can download the Litany of Loreto in Microsoft Word .doc format, in English or in Latin).
Because of the time of year this day comes, it is traditional for those in farming communities to pray special prayers for the success of this year's crops. In that same vein, the planning and prayers for the success of Mary Gardens are a natural for today.
When Lady Day falls on Good Friday, it is transferred to the Monday following Low Sunday (the Sunday after Easter). English folk belief is that this coincidence of dates is a bad sign, and that bad luck is sure to follow it. The English say, "If Our Lord falls in Our Lady's lap, England will meet with a great mishap." In 2005, the coming together of these days was followed by terrorist attacks on London's subways. Our Lord will again "fall in Our Lady's lap" next in 2016.
See also the Feast of the Visitation (2 July), the Feast of the Assumption (15 August), and the Queenship of Mary (31 May).
I must offer this poem by G.K. Chesterton, which alludes to the Litany of Loreto and evokes wonder at the relationship between Lord Jesus and His mother:
A Little Litany
Gilbert Keith Chesteron
When God turned back eternity and was young,
Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth
(As under the low arch the land is bright)
Peered through you, gate of heavenand saw the earth.
Or shutting out his shining skies awhile
Built you about him for a house of gold
To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.
Or found his mirror there; the only glass
That would not break with that unbearable light
Till in a corner of the high dark house
God looked on God, as ghosts meet in the night.
Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In that strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.
Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.
Or risen from play at your pale raiment's hem
God, grown adventurous from all time's repose,
Or your tall body climbed the ivory tower
And kissed upon your mouth the mystic rose.
Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary
By St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (a.k.a. Gregory of Neocaesarea),
A.D. 213 - ca. 270 (excerpt)
Today are strains of praise sung joyfully by the choir of angels, and the light of the advent of Christ shines brightly upon the faithful.
Today is the glad springtime to us, and Christ the Sun of righteousness has beamed with clear light around us, and has illumined the minds of the faithful.
Today is Adam made anew, and moves in the choir of angels, having winged his way to heaven.
Today is the whole circle of the earth filled with joy, since the sojourn of the Holy Spirit has been realized to men.
Today the grace of God and the hope of the unseen shine through all wonders transcending imagination, and make the mystery that was kept hid from eternity plainly discernible to us.
Today are woven the chaplets of never-fading virtue.
Today, God, willing to crown the sacred heads of those whose pleasure is to hearken to Him, and who delight in His festivals, invites the lovers of unswerving faith as His called and His heirs; and the heavenly kingdom is urgent to summon those who mind celestial things to join the divine service of the incorporeal choirs.
Today is fulfilled the word of David, "Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad. The fields shall be joyful, and all the trees of the wood before the Lord, because He cometh." David thus made mention of the trees; and the Lord's forerunner also spoke of them as trees "that should bring forth fruits meet for repentance," or rather for the coming of the Lord. But our Lord Jesus Christ promises perpetual gladness to all those who believe on Him. For He says, "I will see you, and ye shall rejoice; and your joy no man taketh from you."
Today is the illustrious and ineffable mystery of Christians, who have willingly set their hope like a seal upon Christ, plainly declared to us.
Today did Gabriel, who stands by God, come to the pure virgin, bearing to her the glad annunciation, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured! And she cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be. And the angel immediately proceeded to say, The Lord is with thee: fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favour with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever: and of His kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? " Shall I still remain a virgin? is the honour of virginity not then lost by me? And while she was yet in perplexity as to these things, the angel placed shortly before her the summary of his whole message, and said to the pure virgin, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." For what it is, that also shall it be called by all means.
Meekly, then, did grace make election of the pure Mary alone out of all generations. For she proved herself prudent truly in all things; neither has any woman been born like her in all generations. She was not like the primeval virgin Eve, who, keeping holiday alone in paradise, with thoughtless mind, unguardedly hearkened to the word of the serpent, the author of all evil, and thus became depraved in the thoughts of her mind; and through her that deceiver, discharging his poison and refusing death with it, brought it into the whole world; and in virtue of this has arisen all the trouble of the saints.
But in the holy Virgin alone is the fall of that (first mother) repaired. Yet was not this holy one competent to receive the gift until she had first learned who it was that sent it, and what the gift was, and who it was that conveyed it. While the holy one pondered these things in perplexity with herself, she says to the angel, "Whence hast thou brought to us the blessing in such wise? Out of what treasure-stores is the pearl of the word despatched to us? Whence has the gift acquired its purpose toward us? From heaven art thou come, yet thou walkest upon earth! Thou dost exhibit the form of man, and (yet) thou art glorious with dazzling light."
These things the holy one considered with herself, and the archangel solved the difficulty expressed in such reasonings by saying to her: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And fear not, Mary; for I am not come to overpower thee with fear, but to repel the subject of fear. Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with God. Question not grace by the standard of nature. For grace does not endure to pass under the laws of nature. Thou knowest, O Mary, things kept hid from the patriarchs and prophets. Thou hast learned, O virgin, things which were kept concealed till now from the angels. Thou hast heard, O purest one, things of which even the choir of inspired men was never deemed worthy. Moses, and David, and Isaiah, and Daniel, and all the prophets, prophesied of Him; but the manner they knew not. Yet thou alone, O purest virgin, art now made the recipient of things of which all these were kept in ignorance, and thou dost learn the origin of them. For where the Holy Spirit is, there are all things readily ordered. Where divine grace is present, all things are found possible with God. The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall; overshadow thee. Therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." And if He is the Son of God, then is He also God, of one form with the Father, and co-eternal; in Him the Father possesses all manifestation; He is His image in the person, and through His reflection the Father's glory shines forth. And as from the ever-flowing fountain the streams proceed, so also from this ever-flowing and ever-living fountain does the light of the world proceed, the perennial and the true, namely Christ our God. For it is of this that the prophets have preached: "The streams of the river make glad the city of God."And not one city only, but all cities; for even as it makes glad one city, so does it also the whole world.
Appropriately, therefore, did the angel say to Mary the holy virgin first of all, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee; "inasmuch as with her was laid up the full treasure of grace. For of all generations she alone has risen as a virgin pure in body and in spirit; and she alone bears Him who bears all things on His word. Nor is it only the beauty of this holy one in body that calls forth our admiration, but also the innate virtue of her soul. Wherefore also the angels addressed her first with the salutation, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee, and no spouse of earth; "He Himself is with thee who is the Lord of sanctification, the Father of purity, the Author of incorruption, and the Bestower of liberty, the Curator of salvation, and the Steward and Provider of the true peace, who out of the virgin earth made man, and out of man's side formed Eve in addition. Even this Lord is with thee, and on the other hand also is of thee. Come, therefore, beloved brethren, and let us take up the angelic strain, and to the utmost of our ability return the due meed of praise, saying, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee!" For it is thine truly to rejoice, seeing that the grace of God, as he knows, has chosen to dwell with thee-the Lord of glory dwelling with the handmaiden; "He that is fairer than the children of men " with the fair virgin; He who sanctifies all things with the undefiled. God is with thee, and with thee also is the perfect man in whom dwells the whole fulness of the Godhead. Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the fountain of the light that lightens all who believe upon Him! Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the rising of the rational Sun, and the undefiled flower of Life! Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the mead of sweet savour! Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the ever-blooming vine, that makes glad the souls of those who honour thee? Hail, thou that art highly favoured!-the soil that, all untilled, bears bounteous fruit: for thou hast brought forth in accordance with the law of nature indeed, as it goes with us, and by the set time of practice, and yet in a way beyond nature, or rather above nature, by reason that God the Word from above took His abode in thee, and formed the new Adam in thy holy womb, and inasmuch as the Holy Ghost gave the power of conception to the holy virgin; and the reality of His body was assumed from her body. And just as the pearl comes of the two natures, namely lightning and water, the occult signs of the sea; so also our Lord Jesus Christ proceeds, without fusion and without mutation, from the pure, and chaste, and undefiled, and holy Virgin Mary; perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, in all things equal to the Father, and in all things consubstantial with us, apart from sin.
Most of the holy fathers, and patriarchs, and prophets desired to see Him, and to be eye-witnesses of Him, but did not attaint hereto. And some of them by visions beheld Him in type, and darkly; others, again, were privileged to hear the divine voice through the medium of the cloud, and were favoured with sights of holy angels; but to Mary the pure virgin alone did the archangel Gabriel manifest himself luminously, bringing her the glad address, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured!"
And thus she received the word, and in the due time of the fulfilment according to the body's course she brought forth the priceless pearl. Come, then, ye too, dearly beloved, and let us chant the melody which has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, "Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest; Thou, and the ark of Thy sanctuary." For the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary. "Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest." Arise, O Lord, out of the bosom of the Father, in order that Thou mayest raise up the fallen race of the first-formed man. Setting these things forth, David in prophecy said to the rod that was to spring from himself, and to sprout into the flower of that beauteous fruit, "Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear, and forget thine own people and thy father's house; so shall the King greatly desire thy beauty: for He is the Lord thy God, and thou shalt worship Him." Hearken, O daughter, to the things which were prophesied beforetime of thee, in order that thou mayest also behold the things themselves with the eyes of understanding. Hearken to me while I announce things beforehand to thee, and hearken to the archangel who declares expressly to thee the perfect mysteries.
Note: Today is also one of the 4 English "Quarter Days," days which fall around the Equinoxes or Solstices and mark the beginnings of new natural seasons (i.e., Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall) and which were used in medieval times to mark "quarters" for legal purposes, such as settling debts. The other days like this are: the Feast of St. John on June 24, Michaelmas on September 29, and Christmas on December 25.
1 St. Joseph was also of the House of David, so Our Lord was of this House by the flesh through Mary, and legally through St. Joseph's adopted fatherhood.
2 Danaë was a woman of Greek mythology who was locked away in room to prevent any male offspring who, it was predicted, would kill her father. Zeus entered her room as a shower of gold and impregnated her, resulting in the birth of Perseus. Semele, the human mother of Dionysus by Zeus, who came to her as a man. She was tricked into asking Zeus to reveal to her his "godly" nature; when he did, it caused her to be consumed by lightning.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), by the way, always had a deep fascination for the Catholic Church, and all throughout his life entertained the possibility of conversion only to reject it. He eventually converted, praise God, on his deathbed in Paris, and was conditionally baptized, and then anointed, by a Passionist priest.