One practice that characterizes Christians of all varieties is the annual celebration of the Nativity of Christ – the Christian feast known popularly as “Christmas.” Aside from a few, sectarian groups, no one questions this practice, even though it isn’t specifically mandated in Holy Scripture.
Somewhat lesser known, and not as universally observed, is an annual celebration of the Conception of Christ – the ancient, Christian feast known as the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, and proclaimed to her that God had chosen her to be the Mother of His Son. (And fortunately for us, she said ‘yes’).
This event is no less scriptural than the event of Christ’s birth, and yet is celebrated liturgically by almost no one outside the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. And that is a shame, because the celebration of the Annunciation on March 25 – exactly nine months before the Feast of the Nativity – proclaims liturgically what the Church has always held about life’s beginning...that this beginning occurs at conception.
When Christ is conceived in the Virgin’s womb, the Incarnation begins! He doesn’t enter the world on Christmas, because He’s already been in the world for nine months, nurtured in the womb of His Mother. As Orthodox Christians proclaim in our hymn for the Annunciation:
And so the teaching of the Church about the beginning of life is clearly demonstrated by our celebration of the beginning of the earthly life of the Son of God, the Son of Man – the son of Mary. On Annunciation, the Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin – not in potentiality, but in actuality; not as a potential person, but as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Incarnate.
The mystery of the Incarnation begins with Christ’s conception – this the ancient Church has always proclaimed. This the unborn Baptist John knew instinctively when he leapt in the womb of Elizabeth. This Good News is known and proclaimed by all who hold dear the Sacred Tradition of the Early Church, both in the East and in the West.
Though Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians do not agree on all points of doctrine, may we always agree on this: that from the beginning, the Church has proclaimed the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. And may we recognize that we are accountable for proclaiming that truth, in word and in deed (helping the helpless and giving hope to the hopeless) until Christ comes again in glory.
Rev. Barnabas Powell
St. Katherine's Orthodox Mission