Wednesday, 26 March 2014

About the Annunciation

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel (a.s.) to the Virgin Mary (a.s.) that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus (a.s.).  The word ‘Annunciation’ anglicised from the Latin Vulgate verses from the Gospel according to Luke, Annuntiatio Nativitatis Christi.  The word ‘Annunciation’ is derived from the same root as the word ‘announce’.  Gabriel (a.s.) was announcing the birth of Christ (a.s.) in advance.  ‘Annunciation’ is simply an older form of saying ‘announcement’.  This term has also been applied in other ways such as the annunciation of the birth of John (a.s.) and the annunciation to Mary (a.s.)

John the Baptist’s (a.s.) birth was also announced in advance.  Both stories have multiple parallels.  In both cases, the angel Gabriel (a.s.) makes the announcement to a single individual.  It was Zechariah (a.s.) in John the Baptist’s case and Mary (a.s.) in Jesus’ case.  He announces the miraculous birth of an individual who has a prominent place in God’s Plan and is met with a question in both cases.  Both Zechariah (a.s.) and Mary (a.s.) asks how it will happen.  A miraculous sign is offered as evidence for both.  Zechariah (a.s.) was struck dumb.  Mary (a.s.) was told of Elizabeth’s (r.a.) miraculous pregnancy, which was in its sixth month.  The account of the annunciation of John the Baptist (a.s.) is also in the Qur’an.

The Christians believe, like the Muslims, that Gabriel (a.s.) told Mary (a.s.) to name her son ‘Jesus’, meaning ‘Saviour’.  Western Christians observe this event with the Feast of the Annunciation on 25th March, nine full months before Christmas, the ceremonial birthday, mawlid, of Jesus (a.s.).

Luke 1:26
26When the sixth month came, God Sent the angel Gabriel to a city of Galilee called Nazareth.

According to the Gospels, the Annunciation occurred in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s (r.a.) pregnancy with John the Baptist (a.s.).  Irenaeus of Lyon regarded the conception of Jesus (a.s.) as 25th March, coinciding with the Passion of Christ, that final period of Jesus’ (a.s.) ministry leading to his alleged crucifixion.

Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches believe that the Annunciation took place at Nazareth as per the Gospels, but differ on the precise location.  The Catholics believe it was at the site which is now the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Eastern Orthodox Churches believe it is the site now marked by the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.

In the Bible, the Annunciation is narrated in the Gospel according to Luke:

Luke 1:26-38
26When the sixth month came, God Sent the angel Gabriel to a city of Galilee called Nazareth, 27where a virgin dwelt, betrothed to a man of David’s lineage; his name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary.  28Into her presence, the angel came, and said, “Hail, thou who art full of grace; the Lord is with thee; Blessed art thou among women.”  29She was much perplexed at hearing him speak so, and cast about in her mind, what she was to make of such a greeting.  30Then the angel said to her, “Mary, do not be afraid; thou hast found Favour in the Sight of God.  31And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call him Jesus.  32He shall be great, and men will know him for the Son of the most High; the Lord God will Give him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob eternally; 33his kingdom shall never have an end.”  34But Mary said to the angel, “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?”  35And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the most High will overshadow thee.  Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known for the Son of God.  36See, moreover, how it fares with thy cousin Elizabeth; she is old, yet she too has conceived a son; she who was reproached with barrenness is now in her sixth month, 37to prove that nothing can be impossible with God.”  38And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.”  And with that the angel left her.

The Gospel according to Matthew has a separate, briefer annunciation given to Joseph:

Matthew 1:18-21
18And this was the manner of Christ’s birth.  His mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, but they had not yet come together, when she was found to be with child, by the Power of the Holy Ghost.  19Whereupon her husband Joseph (for he was a right-minded man, and would not have her put to open shame) was for sending her away in secret.  20But hardly had this thought come to his mind, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take thy wife Mary to thyself, for it is by the Power of the Holy Ghost that she has conceived this child; 21and she will bear a son, whom thou shalt call Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins.”

In Eastern Christianity, both Catholic and Orthodox, Mary (a.s.) is referred to as ‘Theotokos’, ‘the God-bearer’.  The traditional troparion, hymn, for the Annunciation is traced back to the Pauline Bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, the same one by which the Athanasian Creed is named for.

“Today is the beginning of our Salvation,
And the Revelation of the eternal mystery.
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin,
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
‘Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!’”

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the church year, and is among the eight Feasts of the Lord.  The Annunciation is of such importance in Orthodox theology that the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is always celebrated on the feast, even if it falls on Great and Holy Friday, the day of Jesus’ (a.s.) alleged crucifixion.  If the Annunciation falls on Pascha, Easter Sunday, itself, a joint celebration known as Kyriopascha, it is celebrated jointly with the Resurrection, the focus of Easter.  The Annunciation is also called Euangelismos, Evangelism.  In Greek, this literally means ‘spreading the Good News’.

Ephraim the Syrian taught that the date of the conception of Jesus (a.s.) was 10th Nisan in the Hebrew Calendar, the day in which the Passover lamb was selected according to Exodus 12.  In some years, the 10th Nisan falls on the 25th March, the traditional date for the Feast of the Annunciation and is an official holiday in Lebanon.

The Annunciation is also Mentioned in the Qur’an:


Behold!  The angels said, “O Mary!  Allah Giveth thee Glad Tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.  He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity and he shall be (of the company) of the righteous.”  She said, “O my Lord!  How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?”  He said, “Even so, Allah Createth what He Willeth; when He hath Decreed a plan, He but Saith to it ‘Be’, and it is!’  And Allah will Teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel.  And (Appoint him) a Messenger to the Children of Israel, (with this message): ‘I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay as it were the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah’s Leave; and I heal those born blind, and the lepers and I quicken the dead by Allah’s Leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses.  Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe.’  ‘(I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me, and to make lawful to you part of what was (before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord.  So fear Allah and obey me.’  It is Allah who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him.  This is a way that is straight.” (Surah Ali ‘Imran:45-51)

The Annunciation is also mentioned in Surah Maryam.  Muslim tradition holds that it took place during Ramadhan.


Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.  She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them: then We Sent to her Our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.  She said, “I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah.”  He said, “Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord (to announce) to thee the Gift of a holy son.”  She said, “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?”  He said, “So (it will be): thy Lord Saith ‘That is easy for Me: and (We wish) to Appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us’: it is a matter (so) Decreed.”  So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.  And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: she cried (in her anguish): “Ah!  Would that I had died before this!  Would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!”  But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree), “Grieve not!  For thy Lord hath Provided a rivulet beneath thee; and shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: it will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.  So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye.  And if thou dost see any man, say, ‘I have vowed a fast to (Allah) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into no talk with any human being.’” (Surah Maryam:16-26)

The Protestant churches, except for the Anglicans who hold the Catholic rites, do not hold the Annunciation in the same esteem as the older Christian churches.  Since 1889, many Protestant writers have tried to show that the following verses, containing the message of conception through the Holy Ghost are interpolated.

Luke 1:34-35
34But Mary said to the angel, “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?”  35And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the most High will overshadow thee.  Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known for the Son of God.

Hermann Karl Usener derived the origin of the ‘myth’ from pagan hero worship.  But Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack tried to prove that it was of Judaic origin, spefically from the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah 7:14
14Sign you ask none, but Sign the Lord will Give you.  Maid shall be with child, and shall bear a son, that shall be called Emmanuel.

However, this is prophecy and does not, in any way, contradict but rather affirms the passages in the Gospels and the Qur’an.  Bertram Otto Bardenhewer, the German Catholic patrologist, however, fully established the authenticity of the text of the Gospels from a Christian point of view.  In any case, I was never a fan of so-called higher criticism.  It was a post-modernist affection and another manifestation of rationalist arrogance, limited and limiting.

The author of the Gospel according to Luke likely took his account of the event from an older account written in Aramaic or Hebrew.  The Catholics believe that the opinion that Joseph at the time of the Annunciation was an aged widower and Mary (a.s.) being twelve or fifteen years of age, is founded only upon apocryphal documents.  The local tradition of Nazareth says that the angel, who is never actually named, met Mary (a.s.) and greeted her at the fountain, and when she fled from him in fear, he followed her into the house and there continued his message.  The year and day of the Annunciation cannot be determined as long as new material does not throw more light on the subject.  The present date of the feast, 25th March, is dependent upon the date of the older feast of Christmas.

Muslims believe, based on our own sirah accounts, Mary (a.s.) was around 12 years of age or so at the youngest.  But this cannot be verified.  We believe that there was no Joseph.  This is further explained in The Islamic Understanding of Mary (a.s.) Being Married. As mentioned above, we believe the Annunciation occurred in Ramadhan.  We also believe that she was in her mihrab in the Temple.

The following is strictly from a Catholic and Orthodox understanding since I personally find Protestant scholarship on Scripture to be of a lower standard.  The Catholic and Orthodox  Churches believe the Annunciation is the beginning of Jesus (a.s.) in His ‘human’ nature.  Through his mother, he is human.  If the virginity of Mary (a.s.) before, during, and after the conception of her ‘Divine’ son were to be always considered part of the deposit of faith, this could be done only on account of the ‘historical’ facts and testimonials.  The ‘Incarnation’ of the ‘Son of God’ did not in itself necessitate this exception from natural laws.  Jesus (a.s.) as the ‘Redeemer’ does not arrive in the way of earthly generations.  Conception is by the power of the Holy Spirit entering the chaste womb of the Virgin Mary (a.s.), forming the ‘humanity’ of Christ (a.s.).  Early Church Fathers such as Jerome of Stridon, Cyri of Jerusaleml, Ephrem ans Augustine of Hippo,  say that the consent of Mary (a.s.) was essential to the redemption.  It was the Will of God.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, wrote that the redemption of mankind should depend upon the consent of the Virgin Mary (a.s.).  This does not mean that God in His Plans was limited by the will of something in Creation, and that man would not have been ‘Redeemed’, if Mary (a.s.) had not consented.  It only means that the consent of Mary (a.s.) was Foreseen, and was, therefore, received as essential in the Divine Design.

To us, as Muslims, we should honour the Annunciation as what it is, a commemoration of the miraculous conception of one of our greatest prophets, Jesus (a.s.).  The significance of this event is something Mentioned and Affirmed in the Qur’an.


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