TROPARION For the first three centuries the liturgical worship of our Lord Jesus Christ concentrated around the feast of His glorious resurrection, the Holy Pasch, exalted by the Fathers as “the Feast of Feasts” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus). During the fourth century another fundamental mystery from the life of our Savior, namely His nativity, was introduced into the cycle of liturgical celebrations by the Church. With it the celebration of our Lord’s incarnation, the feast of the Annunciation, made its way into the liturgical year.
Originally the Annunciation was considered as a feast of our Lord, commemorating His mysterious incarnation. Later, however, after a proper evaluation of the Blessed Virgin’s role in the mystery of the incarnation, they decided to celebrate the feast on March 25, as a Marian feast.
1. When discussing the Annunciation, we must make a clear distinction between the mystery and its liturgical celeb ration as the feast of the Annunciation.
The mystery of the Annunciation concentrates on the incarnation of the Word of God when, by the “power of the Holy Spirit,” the Word ” became flesh” (In. 1 :14) in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as described in the Gospel of St. Luke. (LK. 1 :26-38).
The incarnation was always considered a principal mystery of our faith and was inserted by the Nicean Fathers into the Symbol of Faith in 325 A.D. Since then, ali Christians profess that our Lord Jesus Christ “for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin, and became man.”
The liturgical celebration of this mystery as a special feast of the Annunciation came later, in connection with the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, and was simply considered as the feast of our Lord’s incarnation. Later, however, during the sixth century, the emphasis shifted to the Blessed Virgin, exalting her all-important role in the mystery of incarnation.
Thus the Byzantine Church began to celebrate the feast as a Marian feast under the name the Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God.
2. The solemn celebration of the greater number of the feasts was initiated in Jerusalem, after the proclamation of religious freedom by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 A.D., when numerous pilgrims began to crowd the holy places. Provided with magnificent basilicas due to imperial generosity, these holy places gradually became a stage setting of the most impressive liturgical celebrations.
In the middle ofthe fourth century a beautiful basilica of the Annunciation was built in Nazareth, on the spot where it is believed that the house of the Blessed Virgin stood. Thus the celebration of the feast of the Annunciation had begun.
According to time computations, the annunciation preceded the nativity of our Lord by nine months and was to be celebrated on March 25.
However, there were some liturgical difficulties in celebrating the feast on that day. Ordinarily, March 25 coincided with the lenten season, during which all festive celebrations were forbidden by the Council of Laodicea (can. 51). Therefore, the feast of the Annunciation was celebrated during Advent as a liturgical preparation for Christmas, placing the emphasis ofthe feast on the incarnation of our Lord.
3. After the recognition of the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., Mary’s role in the work of salvation began to come to the foreground . By the sixth century the emphasis shifted to Mary and the feast of the Annunciation was recognized as the Marian feast to be celebrated without any exception, on March 25. Thus the Council of Trullo, celebrated in 692 A.D., overode the previous prohibition and decreed the solemn celebration of the feast of Annunciation with the Divine Liturgy on March 25, even if it coincided with Holy Week (can. 52).
The Paschal Chronicle of Constantinople, written at the beginning of the seventh century, clearly states that the entire Byzanti ne Church by “the tradition of the holy teachers” celebrates the feast of Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God on March 25 (c.f. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 92, col. 488). Therefore today, according to Byzantine discipline, we celebrate the Holy I…iturgy even on Good Friday if it happens to fallon March 25.
It was Pope Sergius (687-701), of Oriental descent, that introduced the feast of the Annunciation in Rome, from where it gradually passed to the entire West as part of “Roman tradition.”
4. Although St. Proclus of Constantinople (d. 446) in his /II Oration talks about the Annunciation as a “solemn celebration” (c.f. Migne, Patr. Gr., vol. 65, col. 703-708), he nevertheless concentrates his attention on the hypostatic union of the two natures (human and divine) in Christ, considering the mystery of the annunciation as the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
the same time, i.e. from the middle of the fifth century, we have another and quite long sermon of Bishop Basil of Seleucia, On the Annunciation of the AI/-Holy Mother of God (et. Migne, Patr. Gr., vol. 85, col. 425-452), which greatly influenced the author of the Akathistos Hymn. In his sermon, however, Basil of Seleucia is also preoccupied with the explanation of the mystery of the annunciation, without even mentioning the celebration of the feast.
The oldest authentic homily dealing with the annunciation as a solemn feast celebrated on March 25 should be ascribed to St. Abraham of Ephesus (d. about 553), which was delivered at the t ime of Emperor Justinian. Discovered not long ago, it was published by Professor M. Jugie in 1922. In the seventh century the homilies on the Feast of Annunciation considerably increased in number; they confirm what has been said about the development of the solemn celebration of the feast.
5. The liturgical compositions for the feast are most inspiring and filled with great joy, constantly repeating the angel’s greeting, Rejoice!, as they describe the incarnation of the Word of God, the divine motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the initiation of God’s plan for our salvation. It took almost three centuries until the liturgical compositions and services were properly arranged and took their definitive form.
The hymnographers who greatly contributed to the beauty and solemnity of the feast by their inspiring compositions included : St. Andrew of Crete (d. about 740), St. John Damascene (d. 749), St. Cosmas of Maiuma (d. about 760), St. Theophane Graptos (d. 845), Anatolius ofThessalonica (d. ninth century), and Emperor Leo VI the Wise (d. 912), hiding under his pen name of Byzantios.
The Canon of the Matins for the Feast, composed by St. Theophane, is unique in Byzantine hymnography since it is arranged in the form of a dialogue between the Archangel and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To grasp its beauty and its deep theological thought let us turn our attention to the Eighth Ode of the Canon:
“Hearken, 0 pure Virgin, the handmaid of the Lord, while Gabriel tells you about the eternal plan of the Most High coming to its fulfillment: ‘Make ready to receive God, for through you the Incomprehensible comes to dwell with mortal men. Therefore, rejoicing I cry out : Bless the Lord, all His works!
“The Virgin replied: ‘All mortal thought is overwhelmed as it ponders the strange wonders which you are telling me. Your words are filling me with joy, yet I am afraid that you might deceive me, as Eve was deceived, and lead me astray. Yet, behold, you cry out : Bless the Lord, all His works!
” Put your mind at ease, Gabriel responded, – It is true that this matter is hard to grasp, then obey the words of your own lips. Do not doubt as though I say this to deceive you, but rather believe that I am telling the truth, for rejoicing I cry out : Bless the Lord, all His works!
“The Virgin, being without reproach, answered: ‘Childbirth comes from mutual love; such is the law God has given to men. But I know not at all the pleasure of marriage, then how can you say that I shall bear a child? I am afraid that you are deceiving me, and yet you cry out : Bless the Lord, all His works!
“In reply the Angel said: ‘You speak to me, o holy Virgin, of the ordinary way in which birth takes place. But I tell you of the birth of the true God. He shall take flesh from you in a way beyond any expression and understanding, in a way that He alone knows.
Therefore, I cry ou’ rejoicing : Bless the Lord, all His works!
“It seems to me that you are telling the truth, the Virgin answered, – for you have come as a messenger, bringing joy to all.
Since the Holy Spirit has purified my soul and body, let it be done to me according to your word; and may God dwell within me.
To Him I cry out together with you : Bless the Lord, all His works!”
This brief description of the feast of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God is concluded with the inspiring words of the same hymnographer:
“Today is revealed to us the mystery that is from all eternity. The Son of God becomes the Son of Man that, by sharing in what was our worst, He may make us share in what was the best. In the old times Adam was deceived ; he desired to become like God but did not succeed. Now God becomes man that He may make Adam like God. Let all the creation rejoice and let the nature exult, because the Archangel stands before the Virgin in awe and, by greeting her ‘Rejoicef’, changes our sorrow into joy. 0 Son of God, Who in the mercy of Your compassion have become man, glory to You!”
(Matins at the Praises). o Most Holy Mother of God, save us!