Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord
The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the most important in the Church calendar. First, it celebrates the actual Incarnation of Our Savior – the Word made flesh in the womb of His mother, Mary. Second, it is a principal Marian feast. Two other feasts honoring Our Lord’s mother, the Assumption (August 15), and the Immaculate Conception (December 8), are celebrated as Holy Days of Obligation in the United States. New Year’s Day, January 1, is observed as a Solemnity of Mary.
Many Catholics who are deeply concerned with the defense of the life of unborn children believe that it would be most fitting if the Feast of the Annunciation were also to be accorded this status. We can certainly take on the ‘obligation’ ourselves to attend Mass, if at all possible. In any case, it is most appropriate that we encourage special celebrations in the “Domestic Church”- even, perhaps, in our parishes.
The biblical account of the Annunciation is in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, which describes the news given to Mary that she was to become the mother of the Incarnation of God, records the “angelic salutation” of Gabriel to Mary, ‘Hail, thou who art highly favored. The Lord is with thee.” This is the origin of the repeated “Hail Mary” prayer of the Rosary); and Mary’s response to God’s will, “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” Her exultant hymn, the Magnificat, found in Luke 1:46-55, has been part of the Church’s liturgy of the hours, at Vespers (evening prayer), and has been repeated nightly in churches, convents and monasteries for many centuries.
The significance of this Christian feast on Western culture is made clear from the fact that New Years Day used to be celebrated on March 25. This was the case in England until as late as 1752.
Another remnant of the historic universality of Christianity in the world is the universal use of BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini — The Year of Our Lord) to denote periods of time in history. Although there has been an attempt in some circles to change ‘BC’ to ‘BCE’ (before the common era), AD to CE (common era), and although it is true that the religious significance of our system of dating has been effectively obliterated, nevertheless, Christians and non-Christians alike consent to the birth of Christ as the “fulcrum” of the dating the events of human history.
Family observance of the Annunciation
In families with young children, this feast would be a good time to begin teaching youngsters important lessons about the inestimable value God places on human life.
First, that He loved us so much that He chose to become one of us – to take on our humanity so completely that he “became flesh”, as utterly weak and dependent as any human infant is. Second, God became “like us in all things except sin” at the moment of His conception in Mary’s womb, not at some later time. The Feast of the Annunciation is a celebration of the actual Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Children may, quite naturally, think that the birth of Jesus is the time when Our Savior first ‘became Man,’ especially since Christmas has become the Christian holiday in our culture. We understand best what we can see, what is visible. The invisible, the hidden is, no less real for our lack of seeing it. (We think of the baby in its mother’s womb, known and felt, though unseen, only to her.)
Even very young children can know the truth about the growth of a baby inside its mother’s body, especially If the mother of the family (or an aunt, perhaps) happens to be pregnant on the holiday. The exactly nine months’ wait from March 25th to December 25th for the Baby to be born would be interesting to most children. (God made no special rules for His own bodily development!) What better way than the reading first chapter of Luke to gently begin teaching children about the beginning of each new human life?
Children should be told how important it is to every person that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1), and parents can find this feast a valuable teaching moment.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Article 3 of the Creed, “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and was born of the Virgin Mary” (#436-511), should be read by parents. This will not only give adults a timely review of Catholic doctrine, but it can be a great help to us in transmitting important truths of the faith to our children. The summary at the end can help
formulate points we want to emphasize. Excerpts from the Catechism could be read aloud to older children.
Some other lessons that can be drawn from this extremely important feast are:
Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Angels as God’s messengers
The importance of humility, submission and obedience to God’s will
The value of hiddenness, silence, quiet (baby in womb, Mary at home, &c.)
Family Prayers and Readings
St. Luke 1: 26-53 ; Magnificat (Luke 1:46-53); Psalm. 139 ; John 1.
Creed (See also Catechism of the Catholic Church, Creed, Article 3.)
Rosary (Five Joyful Mysteries: Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation of
Jesus, Finding of Jesus in the Temple)
Novena for the Unborn
Sacred Heart Devotions
Catechism: section on Angels (#328–336)
Activities with children
- Have children draw an Annunciation scene, with the Trinity — Father, Son and
Holy Spirit — present, as well as Mary and the Angel Gabriel. Another idea
would be to make the figures from clay or play-dough, and make a “tableau”
using a shallow box to represent Mary’s house.Mention that Christianity is unique in recognizing the Incarnation of the God as Jesus Christ, the Son. God’s taking on a human body, while being truly and fully divine, is the reason why artistic representations of Jesus, Mary, etc., are not “idols” or “graven images” prohibited by the First Commandment. (See Catechism # 476, 466). Catholics who properly reverence images of sacred figures are actually reverencing the Person whom the image represents, not the physical object — painting or sculpture or medal or whatever.
- Make a flower centerpiece for the dinner table using red carnations (symbolize incarnation’), baby’s breath (innocence, spirit) and ivy (eternal fidelity). Explain how the symbolism of the flowers reminds us of the Annunciation, and the appropriateness of the gift of real flowers for the occasion. Sprinkle the flowers with Holy Water (little children love to do this!), and explain that this consecrates, or sets apart, our gift to the worship of God.
- Make a special Annunciation Candle. Use a fat “pillar candle” of white or blue. Carve a niche in the wax large enough to fit inside it a tiny image (or picture cut from a Christmas card) of the Infant Jesus. Fasten a “curtain”, made from a small piece of white cloth, over the opening with pins pushed into the wax. The candle wax represents the purity of the Virgin. The Baby is “hidden” within the body of the candle. Light the candle when the Angelus or Rosary is said on this Feast. The same candle can be saved from year to year. It can also be used on other feast days and solemnities of the Blessed Virgin (Assumption, Immaculate Conception); as well as on Pro-life observances (e.g., January 22, in the U.S.). On Christmas the little curtain would be removed from the niche so the Infant can be seen.
- Substitute the regular bedtime story with looking at and talking about pictures of the Annunciation in books. There are many beautifully printed art books containing masterworks of Catholic art that can be borrowed from any public library–or you may have some in your home library. There you may find reproduced paintings of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Roger van der Weyden, and others.
Flowers are included in works of Christian art not only because they are pretty and decorative, but because they had a particular meaning. (“Iconography” is the word used by art historians for the study of symbolism in works of art .) The symbolism of flowers was used especially medieval and renaissance paintings and tapestries to reinforce the message of the main subject. Sometimes the background of a tapestry would be carpeted with symbolic flowers. In paintings, a bouquet in a vase might be included, or the Virgin or another person might hold flowers. Elaborately embroidered vestments often had floral decorations, and the borders of illuminated manuscripts were very often embellished with symbolic floral ornaments. The significance of the flowers was generally known at the time these works were originally produced for the decoration of Churches or private dwellings (most are now in museums.)
Children are usually very interested in deciphering the message contained in these art works. And they may enjoy using this ‘code’ themselves. A bouquet or wreath to honor Mary can be made of real or silk flowers, and could include those which traditionally symbolize Mary and her virtues and attributes. Here are some examples:
Lilies (Easter or Madonna lilies and lilies-of-the-valley) – white color and sweet fragrance symbolize Mary’s purity, humility, loving obedience to God’s will. (Jesus is also called Lily of the Valley.)
Iris (old-fashioned names were ‘flag’ or ‘sword lily’): the deep-blue color symbolizes Mary’s fidelity, and the blade-shaped foliage denotes the sorrows which “pierce her heart.” (The iris flower is the “fleur-de-lis” of France. This symbol of the Blessed Virgin is also the symbol of the city of Florence and of St. Louis.)
Gladiolus (name comes from Latin word for sword): as above. Red colored gladiolus also symbolizes martyrdom (as does a palm branch.)
Baby’s Breath symbolizes innocence and purity; also the breath (‘inspiration) and power of the Holy Spirit.
Ivy (evergreen): The ivy stands for eternity, faithfulness.
Violets: The violet’s delicacy, color, sweet scent and heart-shaped leaves, refer to Mary’s constancy, humility and innocence.
Blue Columbine: The columbine (from the Latin word for dove, columba), is a circlet of petals thought to resemble doves. The blue columbine is a symbol of fidelity, and often appears in paintings of Mary.
Marigold (calendula, ‘English’ or ‘pot marigold’ and common garden or ‘French marigold’): both flowers were used as gold-colored dye for wool. Named in honor of Mary (“Mary’s gold”), symbolize her simplicity, domesticity. Marigold also sometimes denoted Mary’s sorrows, perhaps because its strong scent was associated with burial ointments.
Carnations (or ‘pinks’) pink or red color symbolizes love, life. Carnations’ color and spicy fragrance refers to the crucifixion, “love unto death.” The name ‘carnation’ also suggests the Incarnation of Christ.
Rose: The rose is regarded as the “queen of flowers”, and often symbolizes Mary, the Queen of Heaven. Also an almost universal symbol of perfect love, its color, perfection of form, and fragrance, as well as its thorns signifies Mary’s role in salvation history as the Mother of God — the Savior who was crowned with thorns and shed His blood on the Cross for love of mankind. The rose, arising from a thorny bush, also signifies Mary, the Mystical Rose, “our fallen Nature’s solitary boast”, who alone of the human race was conceived without sin. It also may contain a parallel with the fiery thornbush from which God spoke to Moses: Mary, immaculately conceived, was the means through which God became Man, The Word made flesh.
The Rosary, of course, takes its name from the rose. St. Louis de Monfort, in his devotional book, The Secret of the Rosary, speaks symbolically of the White Rose of purity, simplicity, devotion; the Red Rose of the Precious Blood of Our Lord (he refers to Wisdom 2:8 which speaks of sinners heedlessly indulging ourselves and “gathering rosebuds while we
may.”) He also speaks of the Rose Tree, symbolizing the Mystical Roses of Jesus and Mary. He compares the rosebud to a rosary bead, and urges children to regard the prayers of the rosary as “your little wreath of roses for Jesus and Mary.”
Several miracles involving Mary included roses as a prominent feature. St. Elizabeth of Hungary found her apron filled with roses where she was concealing the food she was carrying to the poor to hide it from her husband Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant who received a vision of Mary (near where the Cathedral in Mexico City now stands), found his tilma (cloak) filled with miraculous roses when he tried to convince a priest his vision was real. St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a twentieth-century French saint, is associated with
roses which she promised to send from heaven to those who earnestly prayed. Many Catholic faithful who have received inexplicable gifts of roses connect the flowers’ appearance with young Saint’s promise.
Devotional pictures and statues of the Immaculate Heart of Mary
especially popular in the early twentieth century, shows Our Lady with her
visible heart enwreathed in pink roses. (Pink, or rose-color, is a combination
of purity — white– with love and sacrifice — red.)
This image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is most often found as a companion to the Sacred Heart image of Our Lord with his bleeding heart encircled with a crown of thorns. Children might look for these images in statuary and windows of churches. Although some of these images were sentimentalized and saccharine, they contain, nevertheless, a most striking visual metaphor for the love of God for mankind. The heart represents the innermost being and nature of the Divine Son of God who suffered and died out of love for us, and of the devotion His Mother. These images are sure to provoke questions from children who see them, and, again, offer us an opportunity to explain the imagery and meaning.
A more recent use of the symbolism of the rose is the red rosebud, appropriately, which is the special symbol of the Catholic pro-life movement.