Exactly nine months to the day before the Feast of the Nativity, we celebrate the annunciation Gabriel makes to Mary. Mystical significance is given to this date by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa in his "Golden Legend" written in 1275:
This blessed Annunciation happened the twentyfifth day of the month of March, on which day happened also, as well tofore as after, these things that hereafter be named. On that same day Adam, the first man, was created and fell into original sin by inobedience, and was put out of paradise terrestrial. After, the angel showed the conception of our Lord to the glorious Virgin Mary. Also that same day of the month Cain slew Abel his brother. Also Melchisedech made offering to God of bread and wine in the presence of Abraham. Also on the same day Abraham offered Isaac his son. That same day St. John Baptist was beheaded, and St. Peter was that day delivered out of prison, and St. James the more, that day beheaded of Herod. And our Lord Jesu Christ was on that day crucified, wherefore that is a day of great reverence.
It was this day on which Our Lord entered the world, and on this day, thirty-three years later, that He left it. It must be remembered that it was on this day, not Christmas, that Christ came to the world, as a baby inside Mary's womb; today is the feast of the Incarnation! The Gospel reading today is that of Luke:
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.
And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Who having heard, was troubled at his saying and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?
And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren: Because no word shall be impossible with God.
And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
Our Lady uttered her fiat -- her words "Let it be done to me according to thy word" -- and the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity condescended to take on a human nature and become man. God became man! Father Alban Butler writes in his "Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principle Saints" (1864) these beautiful words to indicate the import of Mary's "yes":
The world, as heaven had decreed, was not to have a Saviour till she had given her consent to the angel's proposal; she gives it, and behold the power and efficacy of her submissive fiat! That moment, the mystery of love and mercy promised to mankind four thousand years before, foretold by so many Prophets, desired by so many Saints, is wrought on earth. That moment, the Word of God is for ever united to humanity; the Soul of Jesus Christ, produced from nothing, begins to enjoy God, and to know all things past, present, and to come: that moment, God begins to have an adorer who is infinite, and the world a mediator who is omnipotent; and, to the working of this great Mystery, Mary alone is chosen to co-operate by her free assent. The prophets represent the earth as moved out of its place, and the mountains as melting away before the very Countenance of God looking down upon the world. Now that He descends in person, who would not expect that the whole heavens should be moved?
Yes, the whole heavens were moved, and we Catholics are moved yet, honoring Christ's Incarnation at each and every Mass when we kneel in gratitude during the Creed, at the words "Et homo factus est" ("And became man"). Angelus Bells at one time (and still in some places) reminded us three times a day -- morning, noon, and evening -- of St. Gabriel's announcement, Mary's fiat, and the Creator of the Sun and Moon and Stars deigning to take on a human nature, all according to prophecy:
...Hear ye therefore, O house of David: Is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel. He shall eat butter and honey, that he may know to refuse the evil, and to choose the good.
And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse [David's father], and a flower shall rise up out of his root.
It is through Our Lady that the Ancient of Days sprang from the root of Jesse according to the flesh, thereby restoring the Davidic Kingdom and coming to reign as King of Kings from the Heavenly Jerusalem.1 Tertullian (b. c. 160) writes of the significance of Mary's heritage when arguing against those who denied Christ's human nature:
Now, since He is the blossom of the stem which sprouts from the root of Jesse; since, moreover, the root of Jesse is the family of David, and the stem of the root is Mary descended from David, and the blossom of the stem is Mary's son, who is called Jesus Christ, will not He also be the fruit?
For the blossom is the fruit, because through the blossom and from the blossom every product advances from its rudimental condition to perfect fruit. What then? They, deny to the fruit its blossom, and to the blossom its stem, and to the stem its root; so that the root fails to secures for itself, by means of the stem, that special product which comes from the stem, even the blossom and the fruit; for every step indeed in a genealogy is traced from the latest up to the first, so that it is now a well-known fact that the flesh of Christ is inseparable, not merely from Mary, but also from David through Mary, and from Jesse through David. "This fruit," therefore, "of David's loins," that is to say, of his posterity in the flesh, God swears to him that "He will raise up to sit upon his throne." If "of David's loins," how much rather is He of Mary's loins, by virtue of whom He is in "the loins of David?"
St. Augustine (b. 354), in his first sermon on the New Testament, explains what Our Lord's being born of a woman teaches about the dignity of women:
But now, would He have been any less a man, if He had not been born of the Virgin Mary" one may say. "He willed to be a man; well and good; He might have so been, and yet not be born of a woman; for neither did He make the first man whom He made, of a woman."
Now see what answer I make to this. You say, Why did He choose to be born of a woman? I answer, Why should He avoid being born of a woman? Granted that I could not show that He chose to be born of a woman; do you show why He need have avoided it. But I have already said at other times, that if He had avoided the womb of a woman, it might have betokened, as it were, that He could have contracted defilement from her; but by how much He was in His own substance more incapable of defilement, by so much less had He cause to fear the woman's womb, as though He could contract defilement from it.
But by being born of a woman, He purposed to show to us some high mystery. For of a truth, brethren, we grant too, that if the Lord had willed to become man without being born of a woman, it were easy to His sovereign Majesty. For as He could be born of a woman without a man, so could He also have been born without the woman. But this hath He shown us, that mankind of neither sex might despair of its salvation, for the human sexes are male and female. If therefore being a man, which it behoved Him assuredly to be, He had not been born of a woman, women might have despaired of themselves, as mindful of their first sin, because by a woman was the first man deceived, and would have thought that they had no hope at all in Christ.
He came therefore as a man to make special choice of that sex, and was born of a woman to console the female sex, as though He would address them and say; "That ye may know that no creature of God is bad, but that unregulated pleasure perverteth it, when in the beginning I made man, I made them male and female. I do not condemn the creature which I made. See I have been born a Man, and born of a woman; it is not then the creature which I made that I condemn, but the sins which I made not."
Let each sex then at once see its honour, and confess its iniquity, and let them both hope for salvation. The poison to deceive man was presented him by woman, through woman let salvation for man's recovery be presented; so let the woman make amends for the sin by which she deceived the man, by giving birth to Christ. For the same reason again, women were the first who announced to the Apostles the Resurrection of God. The woman in Paradise announced death to her husband, and the women in the Church announced salvation to the men; the Apostles were to announce to the nations the Resurrection of Christ, the women announced it to the Apostles. Let no one then reproach Christ with His birth of a woman, by which sex the Deliverer could not be defiled, and to which it was in the purpose of the Creator to do honour.
This parallel between Eve and the Blessed Virgin is why Our Lady is referred to as "the New Eve," as Christ is referred to as "the New Adam." St. Irenaeus (b. c. 115) wrote in his Apology, Book II, Chapter XII:
Those, therefore, who allege that He took nothing from the Virgin do greatly err, since, in order that they may cast away the inheritance of the flesh, they also reject the analogy between Him and Adam.... Wherefore also Luke, commencing the genealogy with the Lord, carried it back to Adam, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of life, and not they Him. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.
As to depictions of Mary at the Annunciation, we read in "Legends of the Madonna" (1895)
It is usual to exhibit her as kneeling in prayer, or reading with a large book open on a desk before her. St. Bernard says that she was studying the book of the prophet Isaiah, and as she recited the verse, "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son," she thought within her heart, in her great humility, "How blessed the woman of whom these words are written! Would I might be but her handmaid to serve her, and allowed to kiss her feet!" — when, in the same instant, the wondrous vision burst upon her, and the holy prophecy was realized in herself.
Depictions of the Annunciation also usually show St. Gabriel the Archangel handing lilies to Our Lady. Mary is often represented by lilies, and the Madonna Lily, named for her, is often called the Annunciation Lily in honor of this Feast and is a perfect ornament for the day. The Venerable Bede (A.D. 672-735) described the transluscent white petals as symbolic of Mary's pure body, and the golden anthers as a symbol of the glory of her soul when she was taken up to Heaven at the Assumption. This poetic commentary 2 by Oscar Wilde makes mention of the lily while describing the humility of the Incarnation:
Ave Maria Gratia Plena
By Oscar Wilde
Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danaë ,
Or a dread vision as when Semele,
Sickening for love and unappeased desire,
Prayed to see God's clear body, and the fire
Caught her brown limbs and slew her utterly.
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand
And over both the white wings of a dove.
And, finally, there is the beautiful story about Gabriel's words to Our Lady, also from "The Golden Legend" mentioned earlier:
Of the salutation that the angel brought to the glorious Virgin, we read an example of a noble knight which for to amend his life gave and rendered himself into an abbey of Citeaux, and, forasmuch as he was no clerk, there was assigned to him a master for to teach him, and to be with the brethren clerks, but he could nothing learn in long time that he was there save these two words: Ave Maria, which words he had so sore imprinted in his heart that alway he had them in his mouth wheresomever he was.
At last he died and was buried in the churchyard of the brethren. It happed after, that upon the burials grew a right fair fleur-de-lis, and in every flower was written in letters of gold: Ave Maria, of which miracle all the brethren were amarvelled, and they did open the sepulchre, and found that the root of this fleur-de-lis came out of the mouth of the said knight, and anon they understood that our Lord would have him honoured for the great devotion that he had to say these words. Ave Maria.
There are few special practices today that I know of, but, as with all Marian Feasts, it is a good day to pray the Magnificat, the Litany of Loreto, the Little Crown of the Blessed Virgin, the Akathistos Hymn to the Theotokos, the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, etc. (You can download the Litany of Loreto in Microsoft Word .doc format, in English or in Latin).
Because of the time of year this day comes, it is traditional for those in farming communities to pray special prayers for the success of this year's crops. In that same vein, the planning and prayers for the success of Mary Gardens are a natural for today.
When Lady Day falls on Good Friday, it is transferred to the Monday following Low Sunday (the Sunday after Easter). English folk belief is that this coincidence of dates is a bad sign, and that bad luck is sure to follow it. The English say, "If Our Lord falls in Our Lady's lap, England will meet with a great mishap." In 2005, the coming together of these days was followed by terrorist attacks on London's subways. Our Lord will again "fall in Our Lady's lap" next in 2016.
A TRIBUTE TO THE MONASTIC LIFE FOR A REALLY GOOD TREATMENT OF THE ANNUNCIATION, TRY MYSTAGOGY (CLICK TITLE)