From Jesus to Mary and Back Again: The History of the Annunciation
The surprising reason it falls during Lent, and why it has been important for fighting heresy and abortion.
Over at Christianity Today I’ve just published an article on a subject that has long puzzled me: Why don’t pro-life evangelical Protestants talk much about the Annunciation? And if we believe that life starts at conception, then why are we more likely to associate the Incarnation with Christ’s birth (Christmas) than with the Annunciation (conception)?
Some familiar names for Christian History readers—N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, Scot McKnight, and others—were kind enough to reply, and I’m grateful for their insights. In fact, I received more response than I had expected, and as a result wasn’t able to include some of the more interesting church history aspects of the discussion.
Among them: Why March 25? The answer at first seems obvious: It’s nine months before Christmas. So many writeups on Annunciation assume (as I had) that once the church placed Christmas on December 25, it was a simple matter of counting backwards to mark Annunciation and Jesus’ conception.
But Muhlenberg College historian William J. Tighe argues that such a history gets things backwards. Before trying to determine either the dates of Jesus’ birth or conception, they tried to determine the date of his death. Tighe’s brief overview, which was published in Touchstone, is worth reading, as is his sequel of sorts in Touchstone’s current issue. But for our purposes here, what you need to know is that Greek Christians in the East said Jesus died April 6 and Latin Christians in the West said March 25.
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the "integral age" of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed. … Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.
Thus is it no accident or irritation that the Annunciation often falls during Lent—or even Holy Week. Originally, that was part of the point. As Augustine wrote, "He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered." (Biblical Archaeology Review’s article on this point is also worth reading.)
As the centuries went on, Annunciation became more associated with Mary than with the Incarnate Christ. By 656, the tenth council of Toledo,for example, called it "the festival of the Mother of God." But discussion of the unborn Jesus continued.
One of the more beautiful meditations (if you can avoid being distracted by the aural reference) is from Ephrem the Syriac, who lived in the 300s:
It is a source of great amazement, my beloved
that someone should enquire into the wonder
of how God came down
and made his dwelling a womb,
and how that Being
put on the body of a man,
spending nine months in a womb,
not shrinking from such a home;
and how a womb of flesh was able
to carry flaming fire,
and how a flame dwelt
in a moist womb which did not get burnt up.
Just as the bush on Horeb bore
God in the flame,
so did Mary bear Christ in her virginity.
he entered the womb through her ear;
in all purity the God-Man
came forth from the womb into creation.
(quoted in The Harp of the Spirit, via Redeemer in the Womb. John Saward’s Redeemer in the Womb, which is largely available for free on Google Books, has a lot of great research in it. But it is also anti-Protestant in extremis. Example: "The Reformation’s rejection of Mary and the Mass has been followed, four centuries later, by the widespread abandonment of Christian morality and faith in God incarnate.")
For other church fathers, emphasizing God dwelling in utero was an important tool against contemporary heresies, such as Nestorianism (the belief that Christ had two natures).
"When we are speaking of God made man, these months in the womb are, theologically speaking as precious as his birth and life upon earth," Roland Potter wrote in his appendix to the Summa. "This may be unwonted in modern theological thinking, but came naturally to St. Thomas and medievals generally. To be born of the Virgin Mary connotes a unique conjunction of the divine and human from the outset. This is the truth that lies at the back of all this series of article (in the Summa)."
Of course, Marian devotion began to pick up steam in the Middle Ages as well, but the Reformers still continued some thinking about the Annunciation and the unborn Christ. The Reformers were eager to drop many of the devotional practices and observances that had become focused on Mary, while directing some of those practices to Jesus. But rather than refocus the Annunciation on the first moments—the smallest and most vulnerable moments—of the Incarnation, most Protestants have simply let the day pass by.
"Most Protestant Christianity has been ‘festival-lite’, being aware of Paul’s warnings about ‘days, months, seasons, years’ in Galatians 4," Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright told me as I was working on the CT article. Similarly, he said, "Most Protestant Christianity has been ‘Mary-lite’, being aware of the danger of idolatry and non- or anti-scriptural teachings (and, latterly, dogmas)."
That’s not to say that Protestants have avoided preaching on the Annunciation or the unborn Incarnate Word. And to some degree, my question about whether pro-life Protestants have ignored the implications of the Annunciation in their preaching against abortion has more counter-examples than it would have a few years ago. John Piper’s much-blogged 2009 "No Mr. President" sermon, for example, took Luke 1 as its text: "What Luke is doing—and he is doing it as the spokesman of Christ—is treating this child in the womb as a person. He uses the word baby, which he later uses for Jesus in the manger. He uses the word joy, which is what persons feel. He uses the phrase "filled with the Spirit" which is what God does to persons. He simply assumes he is dealing with a human person in the womb. And therefore so should we."