What do we know about the Annunciation?

"The Annunciation," by Stefano d'Antonio di Vanni, circa 1430. Photo: Walters Art Museum

What we do know about Mary comes to us from the Gospel evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In the early centuries of the Church, many traditions arose around Mary and her life. Some have no foundation in Scripture, such as her presentation in the temple (observed on Nov. 21). And even with the events recorded in sacred Scripture, many questions remain unanswered. This is true for the Annunciation, celebrated liturgically on March 25. 

The Annunciation account found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:26-38) tells us certain facts: The angel Gabriel visits a virgin named Mary in the village of Nazareth. This moment in Mary’s life, in which she is asked to be the mother of the Savior, is rich for meditation. Those who say the Rosary contemplate the mystery every time they pray the joyful mysteries.

Artists Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Jan van Eyck, or Henry Ossawa Tanner tried to depict the moment of the angelic visitation and announcement. Spiritual masters — such as St. Bernard — have meditated at great lengths on the Annunciation. In one of St. Bernard’s famous Marian homilies, he recounts how the whole world awaits her answer: “Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive.” Many other saintly homilists offer insights for our reflection. 

“Annunciation,” by Fra Angelico, 1451–1452. Photo: Public Domain

There still are lots of unanswered questions, even with all of our meditation. Such questions include: How old was Mary? Where did the Annunciation take place? Whenever I engage these questions that are outside the purview of sacred Scripture, I often turn to three different biographies of Mary and compare what each has to say. 

The earliest biography I consult dates back to the seventh century, and its authorship is attributed to Maximus the Confessor. The Life of the Virgin was recently translated from Georgian into English and synthesizes the first 600 years of tradition about the Blessed Virgin. Maximus’ biography represents much of what Eastern Catholicism believes about the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. 

The second biography I turn to is by Ven. Maria of Agreda, a Spanish Conceptionist Poor Clare nun who lived from 1602–1665. During the course of her life, God commanded her to write the life of the Blessed Virgin. She turned to popular apocryphal sources to compile her narrative, but she also received heavenly visions and interior dialogues. 

The third biography I reference is Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s work. Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824) was a German mystic, stigmatic, and Augustinian nun who gained popular attention in the early 2000s because of Mel Gibson’s reference to her Dolorous Passion as a source text for his blockbuster film The Passion of The Christ. God granted Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich the grace of mystical visions and being transported in time to the biblical events. Her Marian biography was instrumental in the discovery of Mary’s house in Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. 

House of the Virgin Mary, near Ephesus, Turkey. Photo: NKM999/Shutterstock

A few caveats must be given surrounding these texts. One is to realize that each are surrounded by some sort of controversy. Some people question whether Maximus wrote the Life of the Virgin. Dominicans dismiss Ven. Maria of Agreda because of her advancement of the Immaculate Conception, which was not a dogma at the time she lived. Others question how much of the biography Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich actually wrote. 

Further, given the divine intervention in the lives of the two mystics, one would think they would agree with each other. Unfortunately, when comparing the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on several different levels, the biographies often differ. For this, we can posit the human error of the visionary. 

Lastly, these accounts are not a part of the Church’s public revelation. They need not believed. But for curious Catholics, perhaps the biographies can offer something for our meditation and aid us in greater appreciation of the biblical account of the Annunciation. 

The age of Mary

People often refer to Mary as a teenager at the time of the Annunciation. Part of this comes from the non-biblical tradition of Mary being presented in the temple and spending her childhood as a temple virgin. According to Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, at the age of 14, Mary was dismissed from the temple and betrothed to Joseph, with the Annunciation occurring sometime after their marriage.

Maximus concurs with the betrothal, but places it at the age of 12, according to the rule of law. Call to mind the many paintings of the Annunciation and ask if they accurately depict Mary as a young girl during the event. In our own prayer and meditation, we now strive to understand the emotions of the young maiden of Nazareth when she received the news. What must it have been like for her?

“Annunciation,” by Maurice Denis, 1912. Photo: Public Domain

The location of the Annunciation

When a pilgrim visits the Holy Land, one of the most notable parts of the experience is witnessing the dynamic of relationships between Roman Catholics and the various Eastern traditions that share custody over certain holy sites like Bethlehem and Calvary.

Visitors to Nazareth should note the difference between the Basilica of the Annunciation and the Church of the Nativity. Specifically, the Franciscans of the Holy Land have complete custody of the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Eastern Orthodox commemorate the Annunciation in Nazareth at St. Gabriel Greek Orthodox Church, where there is a spring of water. 

St. Luke only mentions that the Annunciation took place in Nazareth; he does not tell us where in Nazareth. The origination of the event taking place at a spring is found in the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal text, which indicates that Mary heard the angel’s greeting at the well but did not see the angel until she returned home. 

Maximus the Confessor aligns himself with the East, citing the Protoevangelium of James in his text. His description is as follows: “And when, how, and where did the Annunciation take place? The virgin was fasting and standing in prayer near a fountain, because she conceived the fountain of life.” Unlike the Protoevangelium of James, Maximus does not place Mary as leaving and then receiving a further revelation in her home. 

The Western mystical texts give little consideration to the location of the Annunciation. Ven. Mary of Agreda writes: 

The whole of this celestial army with their princely leader holy Gabriel directed their flight to Nazareth, a town of the province of Galilee, to the dwelling place of most Holy Mary. This was a humble cottage and her chamber was a narrow room.

Similarly, Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich places the Annunciation in Mary’s room. An interesting nuance between the three vitae is the day on which the Annunciation occurred. Maximus states that it was a Sunday, whereas Ven. Maria of Agreda claims it was a Thursday at 6 o’clock. 

Both accounts provide a rich symbolism. The event occurring at a well allows us to reflect on Jesus as the life-giving water and also find a connection to other encounters at wells in the Gospels. Some have placed the acclamation of Elizabeth to Mary at a water well, and we think of Jacob’s Well and the Woman at the Well (see John 4).

There also is a richness to the West’s private Annunciation, in which we are invited into the prayerful and intimate exchange between Mary and the angel. While there is theological significance to either of the theories, the exact location in a bigger perspective is a quite minute and unnecessary detail. Yet knowing the different locations allows us to envision the event when we close our eyes in meditative prayer.

Stained glass window depicting the Annunciation in the Basilica of Saint Clotilde, Paris. Photo: Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock

The Annunciation: A prayerful event

One fact the biographers make clear about the Annunciation is that it was not a surprise to Mary. All three biographies reference a preannouncement, which allows Mary to prepare herself for the hour she would receive the news. Ven. Maria of Agreda recounts the Blessed Virgin’s nine days of prayer (a novena) that she undertook in preparation.

If Mary indeed prayed for nine days, in imitation of her, an Annunciation novena might be a good devotional practice for us. The other reality of the Annunciation, often captured by artists and affirmed by the three biographies, is Mary’s prayerfulness at the time of the Annunciation. Mary was deep in prayer when the angel came to her. 

As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord and peer into the home of Nazareth where, according to accounts, the angel Gabriel prepared to announce that the Savior was to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary, let us see it as an invitation to deeper prayer.

Engage your imagination with meditative prayer about the events. But most of all, be inspired by Mary’s prayerful disposition, so that whenever a major decision has to be made, it will be done with much prayer. In the end we will make Mary’s prayer our own: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). 

Engage your imagination with meditative prayer.

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