Annunciation means “announcement.” When spelled with a capital “A,” the word refers to the announcement made by GABRIEL, God’s messenger ANGEL, to the Virgin MARY, telling her that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit whom she should call JESUS (Luke 1:26-28). By the early Middle Ages the Church had established a feast day to commemorate this angelic announcement.
In the middle of the fourth century, Church officials in Rome created a new festival to honor the birth of Jesus. They scheduled this festival, which we now call Christmas, on DECEMBER 25. Eventually December 25 gained widespread acceptance as the actual date on which Jesus had been born, implying that Mary must have become pregnant nine months earlier, on March 25. According to the astronomical calculations used by the ancient Romans, the spring equinox also fell on that day (see also WINTER SOLSTICE). By the eighth century the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on March 25, was firmly established in western Europe.
As Mary’s pregnancy marked the beginning of a new era for Christians, many medieval kingdoms also chose March 25 as the day on which they began their new year (see also KALENDS; New Year’s Day). In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII called for calendar reforms which included switching New Year’s Day to January 1 (see also OLD CHRISTMAS DAY). Nevertheless, several centuries passed before most European countries had adopted the reformed, Gregorian calendar.
Many Christians still recognize March 25 as a religious holiday, although they have slightly different names for the observance. Roman Catholics currently refer to the feast as the “Annunciation of the Lord,” the Orthodox know it as the “Annunciation of the Mother of God,” and many Anglicans call it the “Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The English also call the festival “Lady Day.” The Feast of the Annunciation often occurs during Lent. Those Christians who fast during Lent, for example, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, are allowed to modify the fast on this day.
Over the centuries the Annunciation became a favorite scene for western European painters interested in depicting the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The scene also appears frequently in stained glass windows and other church decorations. Many famous artists have bequeathed us their versions of the Annunciation, including Robert Campin (c. 1378-1444), Fra Angelico (c. 1400-1455), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), El Greco (1451-1614), Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), and Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905). In these paintings Mary often appears to be reading or spinning when the angel arrives, activities which represent her piety. A container of water may sit beside her, or the angel may offer her lilies, both of which symbolize her purity. The Holy Spirit commonly takes shape as a descending dove or as a ray of light streaming through the window.