Friday, March 24, 2023

Lady Day

Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, ca. 1472

In the liturgy, the Church takes the season of Lent seriously: there are fewer saints’ feast days around this time of year, and the ones that do exist are on occasion trumped by a ferial day of Lent or at least required to include a Lenten commemoration. The daily instruction, prayer, and mortification of this holy season purify the faithful of bad habits and attachments that may have crept in during the past year and help them prepare for the great feast of Easter. And yet the Roman Rite also takes a small hiatus from this important period of preparation every March 25 to celebrate. And when that date falls either in Holy Week or Easter Week, the celebration is moved to the first Monday after the Easter Octave rather than be suppressed or accorded secondary status. For the Church cannot help but want to celebrate the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary all on its own. [1]

The feast of the Annunciation commemorates the events recorded in Luke 1, 26-38, when the archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she was to be the Mother of God. It is easy to see why this feast was so zealously kept. First, it marks the beginning of the end of Satan’s rule over mankind. Just as the first Eve’s no to God led to our slavery under sin, the New Eve’s yes or fiat to God opens the way to our salvation. [2] As Pope Benedict XVI put it so beautifully, the Annunciation is a veritable wedding between God and us, thanks to Mary.
This scene is perhaps the pivotal moment in the history of God’s relationship with his people. During the Old Testament, God revealed himself partially, gradually, as we all do in our personal relationships. It took time for the Chosen People to develop their relationship with God. The Covenant with Israel was like a period of courtship, a long engagement. Then came the definitive moment, the moment of marriage, the establishment of a new and everlasting covenant. As Mary stood before the Lord, she represented the whole of humanity. In the angel’s message, it was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said yes. [3]
As a sidenote, the Qur’an also contains an account of the Annunciation, but it conspicuously omits any reference to Mary’s consent. That God should in some sense depend on the collaboration of a young girl for the execution of His plan to save the world is, it would appear, unthinkable in Islam: it sounds like a compromise of Allah’s almighty will. Yet the Christian Gospels exult in God’s humbling Himself, and that humility includes stooping to cooperate lovingly with His lowly creatures. As C.S. Lewis puts it in the Screwtape Letters, our God “cannot ravish. He can only woo.” [4]
Second, just as the Annunciation is a kind of wedding between God and man, it is also a kind of wedding between Mary and the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. The Mother of God is hailed as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit because on this day the power of the Holy Ghost overshadowed her. (see Luke 1, 35)
Third, Mary’s interaction with Saint Gabriel serves as a model of Christian discipleship. When the angel appears to her, she is understandably afraid: angelic visits in the Bible are often terrifying events, at least after the angel reveals himself. (see Tobias 12, 15-22) However, the Blessed Virgin quickly regains her courage and, after Gabriel tells her God’s plan for her to be the mother of the Son of the Most High, she asks him a question: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” Mary’s cousin-in-law Saint Zechariah also asked a question when he was visited by Saint Gabriel and was told that he would be the father of Saint John the Baptist, but his question arose from doubt. “Whereby shall I know this?” he asked. “For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1, 18). And in punishment for his doubt, he is struck dumb for nine months. The Blessed Virgin’s question, by contrast, arises not from doubt but from a combination of trust and inquiry. I believe you, she is essentially saying, and as a result I would like to know more specifically how the plan is going to be executed. Gabriel approves of her question and rewards her with an honest answer. Mary’s inquisitiveness is a model of fides quaerens intellectum, of faith seeking understanding, and an illustration of Saint John Henry Newman’s remark that a thousand questions do not add up to a single doubt. Mary’s response to the angel’s explanation, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word,” (Luke 1, 38) is a model of obedience and faith for all Christians.
Saint Gabriel the Archangel
Fourth, the Annunciation highlights Mary’s unique rank and status in salvation history. When the angel Gabriel addresses her, he uses the Greek word Khaire (Ave in Latin), a salutation that is only used for one’s superiors. Here is an angel, a magnificent spiritual creature, speaking to a lowly fifteen year-old girl as his superior. Never does such a thing happen in the Bible, and from it comes the Catholic tradition of praising Mary as Queen of the Angels and Queen of Heaven, for if she is higher than the angels, she is their queen, and if she is queen of the angels she is Queen of Heaven. Mary herself understands the astonishing implications of this greeting, which is why “she was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.” (Luke 1, 29)
Fifth, the Annunciation is, along with Christmas, a great feast of the Incarnation. This is the day that, for the first time in history, that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity united Himself to our humanity by humbly becoming a zygote, a single eukaryotic cell, in Our Lady’s womb. This is the day that the Word first became flesh and dwelt among us, (see John 1, 14) and the place where He first chose to dwell—or to translate the original Greek more literally, to pitch His tent—was within this maiden of Nazareth, making her a holy tabernacle and a new and truer Ark of the Covenant. This is the day, as the Maronite liturgy proclaims, that “the peace of God is planted, and the heights and depths cry out: ‘O come, Lord Jesus!’ ” [5]
Holman Bible, Blowing the Trumpet at the Feast of Rosh Chodesh
Sixth, Saint Thomas Aquinas notes how the “solemnities of the Old Law are supplanted by new solemnities” in the Christian liturgical year. The Feast of the Annunciation, he argues, is a fitting replacement of the monthly feast of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), for it is with the Annunciation that there “appeared the first rays of the sun, i.e. Christ, by the fulness of grace.” [6] Thomas’ contrast between the new moon and the rising sun is curious, but there is another possible connection between Rosh Chodesh and the Annunciation: both celebrate woman’s fidelity to God. According to a tradition found in the Midrash, Jewish women are forbidden to engage in servile work on Rosh Chodesh because God is rewarding them for having been unwilling to give the Hebrew men in the wilderness their earrings when they realized that their men wanted to make an idolatrous image “without any power in it to deliver.” [7]
The icon of Annunciation from the Church of St Climent in Ohrid, R. o. Macedonia, 14th century
The Annunciation is one of the oldest festivities on the Church calendar, but it was not always primarily Marian: indeed, in the Byzantine Rite it is still considered a celebration of the Incarnation of Our Lord and one of the eight great feasts honoring Jesus Christ rather than one of the four great feasts honoring His Mother. It began in the East as early as the fourth century and migrated West, where it was known as the Feast of the Incarnation, the Beginning of Redemption, the Conception of Christ, the Annunciation of Christ, and the Lord’s Annunciation. In 656, the Council of Toledo described it as already well-established and universally observed, and in 692 the Trullan Synod (aka the Council of Constantinople in Trullo) upheld an Eastern custom when it forbade the celebration of the Eucharist during Lent except on “the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, and the holy day of the Annunciation” (canon 52). To this day, the very strict Greek Orthodox fast permits fish during Lent on only two days: The Annunciation and Palm Sunday.
For the Roman Rite, Pope St Sergius I in 701 prescribed a penitential procession with candles for the feasts of the Purification, Annunciation, Assumption, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. [8] Over time, however, the procession was retained only for Candlemas.
The feast appears in our second and third oldest liturgical books of the West, the eighth-century “Gelasian Sacramentary” and the ninth-century “Gregorian Sacramentary.” For centuries it was a holy day of obligation. That obligation was first lifted in France in 1802 and in the United States by the Third Council of Baltimore in 1884; it was then abrogated altogether in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
Octaves are forbidden during Lent, but some communities observed one for the Annunciation anyway: the Dioceses of Loreto and of the Province of Venice, along with the Carmelites, Dominicans, Servites, and Redemptorists. The propers of the Annunciation in the 1962 Missal artfully combine the many reasons for rejoicing already mentioned in the section on “Significance.” The Gospel is Luke’s account of the Annunciation, while the lesson from Isaiah 7, 10-15 contains the famous prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel.” (This is repeated as the Communion Verse). The Gradual and Tract allude to God’s “wooing” of the Blessed Virgin with verses like “The King hath greatly desired thy beauty” (Ps. 44, 11), while the Paschal Alleluia celebrates the feast’s Incarnational dimension: “God hath given peace, reconciling the lowest with the highest in Himself.” The Angelic Salutation (which forms the opening of the “Hail Mary”) is the Offertory Verse, while the Introit contains the momentous verse, “My heart hath uttered a good word” (Ps. 44, 2).
Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1437-46
The orations are also rich in meaning. While the Collect focuses on the Incarnation happening at the message of an angel, the Secret and Postcommunion connect the Annunciation to the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection (the Postcommunion is the prayer used at the end of the Angelus). Finally, the Magnificat Antiphon for First Vespers focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in coming down upon Mary and overshadowing her.
A Potent Date
In the Roman and Byzantine Rites, the feast of the Annunciation has always been held on March 25. In A.D. 240, an author known only as Pseudo-Cyprian argued in his De Pascha Computus that both Our Lord’s coming and His death must have coincided with the sixth day of Creation, when Adam was created and fell. And since the world was created in springtime, Jesus Christ must have been conceived and killed shortly after the vernal equinox. Regardless of the soundness of Pseudo-Cyprian’s logic, it was widely believed by the time of Saint Augustine that Our Lord was conceived and suffered on March 25. [10] Later speculations were even more fantastic. March 25, it was opined, was the date of:
  1. The fall of Lucifer
  2. The creation of the world
  3. The creation and fall of Adam
  4. The sacrifice of Isaac
  5. The crossing of the Israelites through the Red Sea
  6. The conception of Our Lord
  7. The crucifixion of Our Lord
  8. The Last Judgment
Of all of these, the conception of Our Lord fits in best with the rest of the liturgical year. It was already believed in the fourth century that Our Lord was born on December 25, and March 25 is nine months prior. The angel Gabriel also told Mary that her cousin Saint Elizabeth had been with child for six months, and June 24 (three months later) would become the Feast of Saint John the Baptist.
For centuries, the feast of the Annunciation was a day of leisure. In 1240, a Synod in Worcester, England forbade servile work on “Lady Day,” as it was once known in England, and the universal Church was not far behind. The prohibition of servile work in the Western Church was kept from the late Middle Ages until the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. [11]
Dramatic readings and reenactments were once a part of the festivities. In some cathedrals of Europe, a “Golden Mass” would be celebrated in which deacons would chant the parts of the narrator, angel, and Mary, not unlike the chanting of the Passion narrative during Holy Week. In western Germany, churches that had a “Holy Ghost Hole” (an opening in the roof above the sanctuary through which flaming straws on Pentecost were thrown down) went one step further. A boy dressed as Saint Gabriel would be lowered through the hole and address another young actor playing Mary below. As the children in the congregation looked up in awe, their mothers would surreptitiously place cookies or candy on the pew benches, allowing them to believe that Gabriel’s heavenly companions put them there. [12]
Holy Ghost Hole of the Schanz Chapel in Ebbs, Tyrol, Austria, 18th century
Other locales preferred grand processions. In Rome near the end of the medieval period, six black horses would draw an ornately decorated carriage bearing an image of Our Lady from Saint Peter’s Basilica to Santa Maria della Minerva. The Pope then celebrated a Pontifical High Mass there and afterwards distributed fifty gold pieces each to three hundred deserving poor maidens so that they could obtain an honorable marriage (odd that he did not do this on the feast of Saint Nicholas, but it’s the thought that counts). Other parts of Europe held more modest processions in which a choirboy impersonating the Blessed Virgin would be led through the church and churchyard.
In medieval England, the proximity to the vernal equinox made the Feast of the Annunciation one of the year’s four quarter days, when servants would be hired, school terms begun, and rents due. The other three quarter days were Midsummer Day (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25).
Apropos of the old liturgical title “The Beginning of Redemption” and perhaps influenced by the legend that March 25 was one of the days of Creation, when Dionysius Exiguus designed the Anno Domini calendar in A.D. 525, he made the beginning of the year March 25. The Vatican curia used to treat the day as the beginning of the legal year (as opposed to the civic year on January 1). Most civil governments picked up the custom, and some—like England until 1752—retained it even after the Reformation.
The anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s new motherhood, combined with the advent of Spring, led to several local fertility customs. In central Europe farmers placed an image of the Annunciation on a barrel of seed grain and recited something like this:
O Mary, Mother, we pray to you;
Your life today with fruit was blessed:
Give us the happy promise, too,
That our harvest will be of the best.
If you protect and bless the field,
A hundredfold each grain must yield.
The next day they began planting, confident in the verse:
Saint Gabriel to Mary flies;
This is the end of snow and ice.
In Russia blessed wafers of wheat were distributed by the priest after the Divine Liturgy. The father of the house took them home and gave them to his family and servants, who received them with a deep bow and ate them in silence. Leftover “Annunciation bread” would be buried in the fields as protection against frost, hail, blight, and drought. [13]
Theodorus Vryzakis, Epanastasi, 1865
March 25 is Greek Independence Day. In 1821, at the monastery of Agia Lavra, Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag and incited a war for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Since the bishop raised the flag in late March but no one is certain on exactly what day, the commemoration of the event was combined with the great feast of the Annunciation. March 25 is also a national holiday in Lebanon, where it is observed by both Christians and Muslims.
The Annunciation has come to take on new meaning in light of the Culture of Death. In 1993, El Salvador declared March 25 the Day of the Right to Be Born. Years later other countries followed suit: Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Paraguay, the Philippines, Honduras, Ecuador and, most recently, Puerto Rico. Pope Saint John Paul II, who was active in promoting the new observance, wrote: “I express my best wishes that the celebration of ‘The Day of the Unborn Child’ will favor a positive choice in favor of life and the development of a culture in this direction which will assure the promotion of human dignity in every situation.” [14]
Lady Day was also a time of charming folklore. Swallows are said to return to Europe from their migration on this day, according to the Austrian rhyme:
When Gabriel does the message bring
Return the swallows, comes the Spring.
The swallows’ return on Lady Day has served them well, elevating their status in the pious mind. In Austria and Germany they are called “Mary’s birds” and in Hungary “God’s birds.” No farmer would ever kill swallows or destroy their nests out of respect for the Blessed Virgin. In central Europe a popular name for the Annunciation is “Feast of Swallows.”
Stan Shebs, Madonna lily, 2005
Others showed their piety with flowers. According to legend, the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) first grew from the tears of Eve after her expulsion from Paradise, but it was turned white when Mary touched the lily that was being held in the angel Gabriel’s hand. (Artwork depicting the Annunciation frequently shows Gabriel holding a lily.) The Venerable Bede (673–735), a learned Benedictine monk, tells us why the Madonna lily is a fitting symbol of the Virgin:
the white petals [signify] her bodily purity, the golden anthers the glowing light of her soul.[16]
Indeed, the “lily among thorns” mentioned in the Song of Songs (2, 2) was thought by some to be the Madonna lily.
Marigolds or “Mary’s gold” are named after Our Lady because of the old legend that during the flight into Egypt a gang of robbers took Mary’s purse; when they opened it, marigolds fell out. (Perhaps as a result of this story there developed the custom of placing marigolds instead of coins around statues of Mary). Marigolds (calendula) may have also taken on a Marian association because they were in bloom during virtually all the feast days of the Blessed Virgin. Whatever the connection, the flowers were especially popular on the Feast of the Annunciation, when they would be twined into garlands and used to decorate the church.
“We are in the very midst of Lent, and yet the ineffable joys of Christmas are upon us!” writes Dom Guéranger. “We must spend it in joy. Whilst we adore the Son of God who humbled Himself by thus becoming Man, let us give thanks to the Father who so loved the world as to give His only-begotten Son; let us give thanks to the Holy Ghost whose almighty power achieves the great mystery.” [17] And let us give thanks to Our Lady’s yes, who in one word changed the world when she agreed to bring the Word into the world.
An earlier version of this article appeared under the same time in The Latin Mass magazine 30:1 (Winter/Spring 2021), pp. 54-59. Many thanks to its editor for allowing its publication here.

[1] I say “all on its own” because the 1962 Missal also celebrates the Annunciation on the Ember Wednesday of Advent but as a preparation for Christmas.
[2] See Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 5.19.1.
[3] “On God’s Marriage Proposal,” Angelus address at the 2008 World Youth Day Closing Mass, Zenit News, July 19, 2008,
[4] See Jacob Imam, “Not Merely Islam,” Touchstone Magazine,
[5] The Book of Offering to the Rite of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church (2012), 28. 
[6] Summa Theologiae 4. 
[7] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer: The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna, trans. Gerald Friedlander (Hermon Press, 1965), 53-54.
[8] Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1958), 207.
[9] Frederick Holweck, “The Feast of the Annunciation,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1907),
[10] See On the Trinity 4.5.9.
[11] See Weiser, 301-2.
[12] Weiser, 303.
[13] Weiser, 304.
[15] See Weiser, 302-3.
[16] See Vincenzina Krymow, Mary’s Flowers (Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 1999), 28.
[17] The Liturgical Year, vol. 5, trans. Laurence Shepherd (Saint Bonaventure Publications, 200), 454.

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