The tradition of Annunciation
December 13th, 2016
By Father William Nicholas
When we think of the Annunciation we are inclined to think Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Are we aware, however, that stories of divine or angelic announcement of the impending birth of a great figure are found throughout the Scriptures? In the Old Testament, for example, three visitors announce to Abraham the future birth of Isaac (Genesis 18:10). In the Book of Judges, an angel announces to Manoah and his wife that they will have a son, whom they name Samson (Judges13:1-25).
This tradition continues in the Gospel infancy narratives, where there are no less than five annunciations connected to Christ’s birth. The first Annunciation, found in Matthew’s Gospel is not to Mary, but to Joseph (Matthew 1:20-23). In the opening chapter of the entire New Testament the Annunciation to Joseph is received in a dream when an unidentified angel reveals that Mary’s child is conceived through the Holy Spirit. Included is the angel’s quotation of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the virgin birth of Emmanuel. This Annunciation is read annually during the Christmas Vigil Mass and every three years on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, an angel, at first unidentified, announces not the impending birth of Christ, but of John the Baptist – the Annunciation to Zechariah (Luke 1:8-22). When Zechariah expresses his skepticism the angel dramatically identifies himself – “I am Gabriel, who stand in attendance before God.”
Gabriel, now identified, then pays a visit to the Virgin Mary, in the story that has developed in our tradition as the Annunciation above all annunciations (Luke 1:26-38). This passage is read in our Mass each year within the octave before Christmas, and every third year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B). While it is the most familiar, this is by no means the last of the annunciations in the Gospel of Luke.
The Annunciation to the shepherds occurs at the birth of Jesus; a Gospel story read at every Christmas Midnight Mass. An angel appears to them as they tend their sheep outside Bethlehem to announce the birth of the savior (Luke 2:8-14). He offers the sign of the swaddling clothes and the manger and inspires the shepherds to seek the child out.
Finally, there is an annunciation of sorts spoken of as Luke writes of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The Annunciation to Simeon, however, is not given by an angel, but by the Holy Spirit. While we do not read of this event firsthand, it is still told in hindsight – “It was revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not experience death until he had seen the anointed of the Lord” (Luke 2:26). After this annunciation, Simeon is on the lookout for the Christ and rejoices when he finally lays eyes on him (Luke 2:28-29).
Annunciations are by no means limited to Christ’s birth. What reflection on Annunciation would be complete without including perhaps the most important, even if not the most widely regarded, of all angelic annunciations? Found in all three Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, this angelic annunciation is found, not at the beginning, but at the very end. Given to the women who discover the empty tomb, this angelic message has echoed down the centuries as the very center of the good news of Jesus Christ – “He is risen!”
For the Fourth Sunday of Advent, however, we are graced again with the annunciation story of the angelic visit, not to a virgin, but to a “good and upright” carpenter, in the small, seemingly insignificant town of Nazareth.
Father Nicholas is a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco currently serving at St. Bruno Parish, Whittier. Visit www.frbillnicholas.com.
From December 15, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.