Perhaps the most under-appreciated feast of the General Calendar is the one celebrated on April 9, the Solemn Feast of the Annunciation. Truly worthy of the title “First Class Feast,” for centuries it marked the first day of the year, connecting the civil calendar with the idea that, at the Incarnation, the world was born anew. Its import can be grasped easily by children when they learn that it falls exactly nine months before Christmas Day, placing the conception of the Christ Child nine months before his birth.
The lessons of this ancient feast (it was kept at Rome since at least the seventh century) are the foundations of the Christian understanding of the world. It is the culmination of God’s intervention in the life of his people, when he became Incarnate. There is an old saying: Nothing is new under the sun, save for the Incarnation.
In the West, the feast has always been kept as a principal feast of Our Lady. Thus it marks not only the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but also the selection of Mary to be the Mother of God and her famous acceptance of this role: Ecce ancilla Dei, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
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Talk of Mary’s submission to the will of God is a common theme, and risks being reduced to a cliché, since the profundity of her act can be overlooked. It is clear from the accounts in St. Luke’s Gospel that Mary did not comprehend all that was happening to her. She does not understand Gabriel’s message or how it can be possible that she will conceive a child, but she accepts the angel’s word. At the child’s presentation in the Temple, Mary hears the proclamation of Simeon, at once joyous and foreboding, warning that her own heart will be pierced on account of her Son. The shadow of the contradictions of the Cross, at once terrible and glorious, are cast over Mary from Christ’s infancy.
The Annunciation initiates us into understanding the greatest and most basic truths of human existence. The life of man is a mysterious admixture of joy and suffering. Not even the most perfect human beings who ever lived avoided this reality. On the contrary, they were most subject to it, both in terms of the greatest of sufferings and the most exalted of glories. By the Incarnation, the fully human Jesus made himself obedient to his Father in Heaven. Just so, man is subject to the will of God and, therefore, it is not so much his rights that define him, but his duties. And his duties are encapsulated in the Great Commandments: love God and love neighbor. This is man’s purpose.
Modernity, in its dominant ideological variant, soundly rejects these revealed truths. In our society now, the ideology is most notable in the rejection of the concept of submission to duty and the acceptance of suffering. Happiness is said to lie in the complete avoidance of any burden, while the dictates of the individual will reign supreme. We have assigned to ourselves a vast panoply of “rights,” and to offend any ascribed “right” is a grievous wrong.
On March 10, 2018 in the Washington Post, a regular columnist defended the “right” of a women to terminate her pregnancy if a doctor detects signs that the child may be born with mental impairments. Indeed, what would be the point of pre-natal testing for such “defects” without the right to end the pregnancy? A mother of two children, the writer concedes that she would have aborted a child if tests had detected these sorts of issues since “that was not the child I wanted.” A difficult decision, but, who is to judge? Anyway, it’s a Constitutional right.
The Annunciation is the cure to the ideological cancer that produces such depraved sentiments. It stands as the antithesis to the self-absorption that has led many to feel tedium and purposelessness in their lives. The purpose of life is found in the discharge of our duties. For Mary, it was the ineffable mystery of becoming, literally, the Mother of God. Regardless of the majesty of her status, she achieved no worldly fame or comfort. On the contrary, she lived to watch her only child die in torment, rejected by his society and abandoned by his friends. Yet she did her duty to her Son and stood at the foot of the Cross.
The life of the ordinary Christian is patterned on the life of the Blessed Mother and her Son. For most people, the meaning of life must be found in the great and small sacrifices of daily life—for spouses, children, elderly parents, sick relatives or troubled friends. We are duty-bound to perform what acts of charity we can, observing the moral law as crowned and perfected in the teachings of Christ. Our goal is service and obedience to God, not the self-seeking promotion of our own “rights.” Taken to the extreme, as is now common, such self-seeking produces ludicrous notions, as exemplified by the inverted morality of the Post columnist’s claim that a child in the womb may be deemed flawed and summarily destroyed.
For modern ideology locates man’s purpose in his own self-righteousness. The childish refrain that says “I should be able to do whatever I want” and “You must not offend me” is only the latest version of the Serpent’s temptation, the essence of all sin: “Why should you have to obey God? Do as you wish and you, too, can be a god!” Modernity’s cheap moralism is easy to achieve, if we only adopt the right ideological outlook and assure ourselves of our own moral probity. Yet this modern pseudo-morality has no purpose other than self-justification. And because it requires no true moral discipline or actual personal sacrifice in the service of charity, it cannot supply a genuine and sustained drive able to shape our life and give it meaning.
Against the false and empty currents of the world, we look to Mary, created the new Eve at the Annunciation, the woman who accepted God’s will and with it all of the meaning of human existence—its joy, its suffering and its ultimate end in the glorious reunion with God. The Christian life is not a self-help program or a formula for worldly satisfaction. It is the acceptance of the awesome truth of man’s creation: We are made to know, and to love and to serve God in this life, and to be happy with him in the next. We are the servants of God; may it be done to us according to his word.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Annunciation” painted by John William Waterhouse in 1914.