Why has the significance of the Annunciation been almost lost?
For the vast majority in Britain, the story of the Annunciation is little understood
It was a chance viewing of a picture in London’s National Gallery that inspired a spiritual quest that took up three years of my life. The early-18th-century painting (left) by the French artist, François Lemoyne, depicts the dramatic encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary described in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:26-38), when Gabriel informs Mary that she will conceive a son and must name him Jesus.
From a Christian point of view, it is a pivotal moment. Yet for the vast majority of people in Britain today, the story of the Annunciation is little understood or even known about, and its status and significance has been almost lost. I became determined to find out why.
This year, the Feast of the Annunciation fell on Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, so celebrating it has been moved in western Churches to more than a fortnight later, to the Monday of Low Week. But how many churches across Britain will hold a special service on that day to celebrate the encounter? And yet 25 March, nine months exactly before the birth of Jesus – known as Lady Day – was once the start of the New Year, and an important event in the national calendar.
Seeing Lemoyne’s painting sparked childhood memories of when I had first heard the story. It also led me to approach senior clerics, theologians, historians and artists. What, I asked them, does the passage mean to you? If the story is about calling and acceptance, how has its key message shaped your life? What do you make of the stark description, by Philip Egan, the Bishop of Portsmouth, of the Annunciation as “the most important event in human history”? One encounter led to another; in the end, I had notes from more than a hundred conversations.
Luke’s Annunciation passage is less than 300 words long. The Virgin Mary’s role and status in the story provokes a wide range of reactions, often highly charged. The reflections give a unique insight into belief, certainty and doubt, and the understandings of “truth” and “calling” held by contemporary Christians.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stresses the Annunciation as an act of receiving. “The act that redeems the world, the act that turns the human universe on its axis, is an act of opening and receiving. Not only Mary’s opening and receiving the Word of God through the angel and the Holy Spirit but also the opening and receiving that God himself undertakes as part of being human. We all start with the dependence to be fed...and Jesus is no exception.”
The Dean of Westminster Abbey, John Hall, calls it “the decisive moment” and describes Mary’s positive response as “the cosmic yes. She takes an extraordinary risk.” The theologian, David Ford, hails it as “the DNA of our faith … it’s the story that has everything” while the late historian Owen Chadwick described it as “the most beautiful story in Scripture – and the most important one”.
Anglican priest Rose Hudson-Wilkin says “it draws me to a God who uses the powerless … it’s about God turning upside down society’s way of looking at things”, while historian Diarmaid MacCulloch tells me, “It makes the Incarnation work metaphorically when opposites – divinity and humanity – shouldn’t work together, can’t be together. The Annunciation is the hinge on which they work.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols tells me that for him “the Annunciation is an invitation to remember transcendence. That each of us is addressed by God, each of us is esteemed by God and is, at least in potential, full of grace. It’s a reminder of the dignity of every person no matter how lowly or simple or confused or angry or bitter that person may be.”
Former Methodist Conference president, Mark Wakelin, describes it as “a statement about the degree to which God trusts humanity. In which the mighty weight of his promises hangs on the thin thread of human obedience”, while the former Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, says, “for the Virgin Mary, there’s a being alert to the movement of God” and a readiness to be found.
The Dean of Norwich, Jane Hedges, emphasises that “Mary did have a choice. She could have said no. For me, that’s fundamentally part of my spirituality. God has a will and a purpose for us but, with that, we have free will – bringing our will into line with God’s will – and that’s what Mary did.” Meanwhile, the Dean of York, Vivienne Faull, sees it as a story of “empowerment, emancipation, independence”, and Paula Gooder, theologian-in-residence at the Bible Society, suggests that the way Mary is depicted in the story has “done enormous damage”. “It’s particularly difficult for those of us who are, ourselves, mothers. Mary is held up as an ideal none of us can achieve – to be a virgin mother.”
While recording these conversations for a book published last month, I also traced the history of the Feast of the Annunciation, from the early Church to the medieval cult of Mary and the Reformation, to the Age of Enlightenment and to the post-modern world. From England to the Holy Land I stood in front of a vast array of paintings, sculpture, mosaics and tapestries, and listened to music and poetry, all inspired by the story – from a 3rd-century fresco in a catacomb in Rome to an Andy Warhol screen print; from a John Tavener choral piece to 10 great treasures in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
My journey ends with a reflection on how these encounters have shaped my own beliefs and understanding. As Steve Chalke, the Baptist minister and founder of the Oasis trust, points out: “The Annunciation is like a gold mine that I can never finish mining. Even if I got to 150 years of age, I’d still be finding truths about it I’d never seen before. For me, the centrality of the story is about God’s intention with ordinary people to bring about extraordinary things.”
Mark Byford was deputy director-general of the BBC from 2004 to 2011. Previously, he was director of the BBC World Service. The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest is published by Winchester University Press.