IT WAS a chance viewing of a picture in the National Gallery in London which inspired my three-year quest to understand more about the spiritual meaning of the annunciation. The early-18th-century painting by the French artist François Lemoyne (on loan from Winchester College) depicts the encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, as described in Luke 1.26-38.
That meeting — when Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a son, and must name him Jesus — is a pivotal point in Christianity. The usual date of the feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, exactly nine months before Christmas and known as Lady Day, was once the start of the New Year and an important event in the nation’s calendar.
This year, because 25 March was Palm Sunday, the Annunciation is transferred to the next possible day according to the rules governing the calendar, Low Monday, 9 April. Yet relatively few Anglican churches will hold a celebration of the eucharist, let alone a sung one, or a special service that day, partly because many of the clergy may be on holiday. And for most people in Britain today, the story is not only little understood, but little known. Why has its status and significance been lost?
SEEING Lemoyne’s painting sparked childhood memories of the time I first heard the story of the annunciation. That led me on a long search, which involved conversations with more than 100 senior clerics from across the denominations, world-renowned theologians, historians, and artists, hearing what the Annunciation means for them. Do they see it as fact, a metaphor, or something else again? If the story is about calling and acceptance, how has its key message shaped their lives? How do they respond to the stark statement by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Philip Egan, that the annunciation is “the most important event in human history”?
Luke’s account is fewer than 300 words in length, and takes just over a minute to read, but I was struck by the number of different interpretations of its spiritual meaning, and how the status of the Virgin Mary and the part that she plays in the story trigger a wide range of reactions, from adoration to condemnation, often highly charged and emotional.
The frank and intimate responses offer unique insights about belief and non-belief, certainty and doubt, and the notions of “truth” and “calling” in Christianity today.
THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams emphasises that the annunciation is 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,” he says, “We all start with the dependence to be fed, to be nourished, and Jesus is no exception.”
The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, calls the annunciation “the decisive moment”. He describes Mary’s positive response as “the cosmic yes. She takes an extraordinary risk. . . At the heart of the annunciation story is God’s forbearance, God’s humility.”
The theologian Professor David Ford describes it as “the DNA of our faith. . . It’s the story that has everything”; and late Cambridge don Owen Chadwick told me just before he died: “It’s the most beautiful story in Scripture, and the most important one.”
Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin sees the encounter as about “God turning upside-down society’s way of looking at things. It’s about God emptying himself.” The historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch reflects: “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 suggests that “The annunciation is an invitation to remember transcendence. The starting-point, the foundation: an annunciation of our transcendence, and of both our capacity and calling to understand and share in the life of God.”
The former President of the Methodist Conference, Mark Wakelin, describes it as “the mighty weight of God’s promises hanging on the thread of human obedience”; and the former Bishop of London Lord Chartres says “it’s about being alert to the movement of God, and being ready to be found.”
THE Dean of Norwich, the Very Revd Jane Hedges, emphasises that “Mary had 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.”
The Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware agrees: “It was an invitation, not a compulsory order. God waited for her in full freedom.” The Dean of York, the Very Revd Vivienne Faull, also underlines Mary’s freedom to choose, and sees it as “a story of empowerment, emancipation, independence”. However, Dr Paula Gooder (theologian-in-residence at the Bible Society), told me: “Personally, I think Mary’s description in the annunciation has done enormous damage, and particularly to those of us who ourselves are mothers. Mary is held up as an ideal none of us can achieve — to be a virgin and a mother.”
THE Revd Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, sums up the annunciation story in one word: for her it is about “yes”. She describes it as the new, unimagined future. “For me, her encounter with the divine presence is the irresistible invitation, which, itself, is a paradox,” she says. “You are free to say no, but you can’t resist it.”
The new Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Dame Sarah Mullally, says: “It’s about learning from Mary about that sense of obedience, and recognising that obedience isn’t straightforward. Obedience is still a choice. To be obedient is sometimes easy, and sometimes it isn’t.”
The theologian Professor Tina Beattie describes the annunciation as “The shock of the new — the moment creation finds its meaning.” The general director of the Evangelical Alliance, Steve Clifford, tells me: “There has been a danger, in Evangelicalism, of almost forgetting the importance of Mary in the story. Partly out of a reaction, we’ve ignored the role and place of Mary. Personally, I find the story profoundly moving. I wonder if there’s ever been a more significant conversation that’s taken place. It’s a profoundly honest conversation.”
ALONGSIDE the searching encounters, I travelled around England, across the Continent, and to the Holy Land, to stand in front of more than 100 great works of art from the past two millennia, all inspired by the annunciation story: a vast array of beautiful paintings, sculpture, mosaics, and tapestries, together with stunning music and poetry, rooted in the biblical encounter. They ranged from a third-century fresco on a ceiling in a catacomb in Rome to an Andy Warhol screenprint; from a John Tavener choral piece, performed live in Winchester Cathedral, to ten magnificent annunciation treasures on display in the V & A.
As the Evangelical Baptist minister the Revd Steve Chalke told me, “The annunciation is like a goldmine 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.”
WHILE the fissure between Roman Catholics and Protestants, created at the Reformation, is often apparent in our attitudes to Mary, I wonder whether the story of the annunciation can also act as a bridge to greater interdenominational understanding in the context of Christian unity.
If only we could return the feast to its rightful status and remember that it was this moment — the moment of Jesus’s conception — which changed the world for ever.
Mark Byford is a former Deputy Director General and Head of Journalism at the BBC, and a Lay Canon of Winchester Cathedral.
The Annunciation: A pilgrim’s quest is published by Winchester University Press at £44.