The Annunciation of the Lord
March 25 is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. This holy day of obligation observes the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
The Annunciation is, first and foremost, the story of a mother and her son. It tells how the Virgin Mary was overcome with the Holy Spirit and conceived Jesus, thus marking the Incarnation as well as Mary’s role as theotokos, or “Mother of God.” What follows this significant religious event, however, is another story, a very human one concerning a mother and her daughter. Imagine Mary, a devout thirteen-year-old girl, having to tell her mother, Anne, that she was with child—and that the child was the Son of God. How would Anne react to the news that Mary had been chosen to be the “handmaid of the Lord”?
Life in Nazareth
After the Annunciation, Mary told Anne of Gabriel’s visit and that she was pregnant. Anne was understandably shaken and filled with doubt. Such a revelation would lead any practical woman to look for a more reasonable answer to her daughter’s pregnancy. Anne must have wondered, had her only child, who had always been obedient and virtuous, been with a man other than Joseph, her betrothed? For Mary to have had an affair would have been completely out of character.
In addition, Anne and Mary lived in Nazareth, a poor farming village so small and inconsequential that, aside from the Gospels, there was no record of it in any ancient Jewish source until the third century. The impoverished Jews who lived there numbered no more than a few hundred. In a small village like Nazareth, it would have been difficult for Mary to have been involved with a man without Anne at least having become suspicious.
We can imagine Anne suspending her disbelief as she listened to Mary’s conviction that she was pregnant. Anne and Mary most likely shared the same room and bed; hence, Anne knew the timing of Mary’s periods. While she was aware that the timing was right for conception to have occurred, she also knew that one sexual encounter did not guarantee pregnancy. Certainly, she must have hoped this was the case, that Mary was not pregnant, for a pregnancy would be catastrophic for both Mary and the child. Under Jewish law, Mary could be stoned for her transgression.
At this point in Anne’s life, she was alone in dealing with the situation. Her husband, Joachim, had likely died, and she had no one to share such a story, to ask if she was just another mother being duped by her daughter. She was understandably full of doubt. Just two weeks earlier, Mary had a normal period. Why then was she so convinced she was pregnant when there had not been time for any indication of pregnancy to appear? And, more importantly, if it was true that Mary was pregnant, who was the father?
The answers to those questions would come, so Anne waited before taking any action. She knew the truth would be revealed in two ways. If Mary’s story of Gabriel’s visit and announcement were as she said, then Anne would know in two weeks when Mary was due to have her period. The other path to the truth was through Anne’s aunt, Elizabeth. Mary had said that Gabriel’s message also revealed that Elizabeth was pregnant. The likelihood that she was with child was, Anne knew, was infinitesimally small. Ten years older than Anne, who was in her fifties, Elizabeth had been notoriously “barren.”
Two weeks later, Anne had her first answer. Mary missed her period, and Anne had to give credence to Mary’s story. There was no other reasonable explanation for Mary’s conviction of her pregnancy at a time no one could have known for certain. However, one question remained unanswered: Was Elizabeth with child as Gabriel had announced?
Scripture does not mention that Anne accompanied Mary to see Elizabeth, but there was no way that Mary, at age thirteen, could have made the trip by herself. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, lived about five miles north of Jerusalem in Ain Karem. The direct route from Nazareth led through Samaria; however, due to religious and ethnic animosities between Jews and Samaritans, Jews from Galilee usually avoided Samaria by going east, crossing the Jordan River near Scythopolis (Bethsean), going down the east side of the Jordan and re-crossing it at Jericho, thence west through the desert climbing up to Jerusalem.
Anne financed the trip of about 140 miles, planning the journey during the two-week wait for Mary’s period so that they could go “in haste” if Mary was indeed pregnant. Anne probably tentatively arranged to purchase a donkey on which they could load their travel gear and take turns riding. To explain their sudden departure, Anne likely told Joseph and the neighbors that Elizabeth needed help.
Upon arriving at the home in Ain Karem, Anne saw Elizabeth’s pregnancy and was confirmed in her belief in Mary’s story that she was the mother of the Messiah, miraculously begotten of God. This was evidenced in how they greeted Elizabeth. Ordinarily, Anne would have spoken for them, being both Mary’s mother and the older woman, but once she had seen Elizabeth and realized the truth, she deferred to Mary as the mother of the Messiah.
Mary and Anne stayed with Elizabeth through the last months of her pregnancy and birth of John the Baptist. After John’s circumcision, and after seeing Zechariah released from being dumb and upon hearing his song of prophecy, Mary and Anne returned to Nazareth. All that Gabriel had told Mary about Elizabeth had come to pass. Mary was four months pregnant by the time they reached home. Now it was up to Anne to relay the news of Mary’s pregnancy to Joseph.
The Annunciation recounts how Jesus was both human and divine, and the miraculous moment in which the Blessed Virgin Mary realized that she was to deliver the promised gift from God. It culminates in the story of a mother and daughter who become the first two disciples of Jesus.