It's the feast of the Annunciation. OK, so what was announced? The story is related in the Gospel according to St Luke, 1:26-38. The angel Gabriel (which means "God is my hero" in Hebrew) announced to a Jewish girl named Miriam (better known in English as Mary) that God wanted to cause her to become pregnant with the promised Messiah, and that she should name him Joshua (which means in Hebrew "God rescues", which is better known in English as Jesus, from the Latin for the Greek for the Hebrew).
Of course, if God is causing the pregnancy, God is not the parent but the father. The complication is, Mary is engaged to a man named Joseph who presumably will be taking care of causing her pregnancies, and in their culture, engagement pretty much was marriage, just the time between the promise of marriage and holding the wedding ceremony. So, if she said yes but Joseph did not believe "It's OK God did it", which is not something a guy is inclined to believe, he would be within his rights under the Law of Moses to have her put to death. Mary knew that. How's that for a problem pregnancy?
While it's fine to get all into the miracle of a pregnancy caused by divine intervention rather than human intercourse, it might be well to spend a little more time on this -- Mary faced a real hard decision on this pregnancy, like the risk of death, it was not at all convenient for her, but, she trusted God and said yes.
Luke also records that Yes, in the famous Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55, which has become a central part of the Divine Office about which this blog recently posted, associated with Vespers or evening prayer in the Western church and Matins (which, if you mistake the Catholic Church for the catholic church, no longer exists) in the Eastern church.
Well now, how about that, the Messiah comes from a troubled pregnancy! Let's put that in the context of troubled pregnancies as well as of the Messiah; there is only one Messiah, but we have a lot of troubled pregnancies. Far from being something shunned or ignored, Christianity and the Christian Church started with one!
And how about this, notice that the date on which the Annunciation, which would then be the date of Jesus' conception, is celebrated is exactly nine months, the period of human gestation, before 25 December, the celebration of Jesus' birth. OK, nine months, I got it -- but, there's more to it than that.
Our current way of numbering years comes from a guy named Dionysus Exiguus, which means Dennis the Short. He introduced his calendar reform in 525 A.D. His main goal wasn't to work out calendar details, but to fix a date for the observance of Easter, since when to celebrate it was disputed. In the course of that, he assigned the beginning of the new year to the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March. Why? Because years would be dated from the time of grace, which began when Jesus' life began, In the Year of Our Lord, or anno domini (A.D.) in Latin, and since life begins with conception rather than birth, years would be counted as before or after his conception, not after his birth.
Pretty big what is now called "pro-life" statement there. This pro-life statement is not an accident but quite intentional. From ancient Rome the practice had been to number years from 1 January, the day the new consules took office. So this was a change. It became prevalent with Charlemagne, who used it as the system throughout his empire, the basis of post-Roman Europe. The beginning of Jesus' earthly life on this date of his conception was such a big deal that it was New Years' Day, the beginning of the new year, until relatively recently, in Mother England as late as 1752.
In the calendar used now throughout the world, years are still numbered with reference to Jesus' life, but the world has erased much of the reference. First was the move of New Years Day back to 1 January, which happened when the Gregorian (so called from Pope Gregory the Great who authorized it) calendar replaced the Julian (as in Julius Caesar) calendar used in Dennis' time. You can read more about that in this blog's New Years post, but of interest here is that this is the origin too of "April Fools".
As the Gregorian calendar took hold across Europe, starting in 1582, not only did the start date for the year change but the "drift" of the Julian calendar was fixed, so that those who held on to 25 March as New Years Day also found 25 March in the old Julian calendar now fell in April in the new Gregorian calendar, thus making them "April Fools", with pranks being played on them.
Isn't that hilarious? Hey, wanna know what hilarious is, where it even comes from? Like everything else worth anything it's from or through the Romans, this time the Hilaria. The word hilaria means cheerful ones and comes from the Greek adjective hilaris meaning "cheerful". Hilaria could be for any joyful event, like a wedding or birth, but mainly it referred to a big feast of public games and merriment in honour of Cybele, the mother of the gods and known as Magna Mater or Great Mother in Latin. Especially liked were masquerades where you could poke fun at anything and anyone, even important people. All to celebrate, guess what, the arrival of better weather and more daylight and the departure of Winter on the eighth day before the Kalends of April, which is the first day after the vernal equinox. Great, whenzat? Guess what, on 25 March!
The second erasure has been in recent decades. Since the Gregorian calendar is in use now throughout the world in lands with a Christian history or not, there has been a move toward calling the A.D. years (anno domini, in the year of Our Lord) the Common Era or C.E., and the B.C. years (Before Christ) Before the Common Era or B.C.E. Well, what's "common" about it, there was people around before and after Christ, but it removes the mention of him even though it's still dated from him.
Although the Western church calendar does contain provisions for moving the Annunciation should it fall in Easter, which is possible, the Eastern church moves it under no circumstances whatever, so important is the celebration of the beginning of Jesus' life, and it would be celebrated as well as, for example, Good Friday. How's that for a statement that life begins at conception?
In Mother England the Feast of the Annunciation is also known as Lady Day, the lady being Mary. This has some echoes even in the secular world. It is the first of the four quarter days, marking the quarters of the year, when rent was due and servants were hired, and Lady Day as the first Quarter Day is also when landowners' contracts with farm workers began. 25 March in the old Julian calendar became 6 April in the new Gregorian calendar, and 6 April to this day begins the tax year in the UK.
To be complete, the Quarter Days align roughly with the solstices and equinoxes, and they are Lady Day, 25 March, Midsummer Day, 24 June, Michaelmas, 29 September, and Christmas, 25 December.
So Happy Lady Day! But back to problem pregnancies, especially to those ladies in troubled pregnancies with tough times ahead if you go through with it. God gets it, he chose to come into the world that way. His mother gets it too. So does his church. We're all with you, and welcome you to be with us.
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