The exact dates of Christ’s conception and birth cannot be known with certainty. However, a tradition that Jesus was conceived and died on March 25th can be traced back to Hippolytus in the early third century. Saint Augustine wrote of it in Ch. 5, Book 4 of "On the Trinity": "For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since." As such, the Annunciation date would have come first and the date of Christmas afterward set relative to it on December 25th. The more commonly promulgated view however, is that the date for Christmas was chosen first to overwrite and purify an ancient pagan holiday that was celebrated December 25th, and that March 25th was chosen afterwards as the day to commemorate His conception because it falls nine months before Christmas. However, according to Benedict XIV, the date of March 25th was known to be the actual day of Christ's conception at the Annunciation based on ancient tradition. If true, it may have independently determined the dates of both Christmas and the feast for the birth of John the Baptist (June 24) based on the Bible’s assertion that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Christ was conceived.
Regardless of the dates’ authenticity, from a pro-life perspective the more important fact is that early in Christian history the dates of Christ’s conception and birth were set correctly relative to each other to symbolize the time of gestation--separated by what we commonly recognize as a pregnancy-length interval (see Was Christ Really Conceived on March 25? in the home page Q&A). The feast probably dates back as far as the 5th century around the time of the council of Ephesus (c. 431). By the mid to late 600’s the tenth Synod of Toledo and Trullan Synod speak of the feast as universally celebrated in the Church.
The day has had various names throughout its history. Today we most often see Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the ancient title Annunciation of the Lord, which Pope Paul VI noted in a February 2nd 1974 document had been “deliberately restored.” The current "Annunciation" title gives a chronological perspective, bringing to mind the angel opening the scene in which Mary assents and the Incarnation takes place unseen in her womb. But even today other names are sometimes used to emphasize the wonder and import of that hidden reality. For example, a pro-life Apostolic Blessing of Pope John Paul II given on March 25, 2003 identified it as the “Solemnity of the Incarnation of The Divine Word.” Earlier Latin names included: Festum Incarnationis, Conceptio Christi, Initium Redemptionis, Annuntiatio Christi, and Annuntiatio Dominica. In Britain it had also been called "Lady Day" and "Our Lady's Day" in reference to Mary. The varied titles highlight different aspects of the feast and add richness to its history, but also challenge us to focus on the central aspect that can be most easily overlooked--the Incarnation at Christ's conception--the moment the Word was made Flesh--God becoming man.
In earlier times the feast of March 25th did not lack for attention as it had been widely observed as New Year's Day. Dionysius Exiguus is credited with introducing the A.D. (Anno Domini--"In The Year of Our Lord") system with March 25 as the start of each new year on the rationale that the era of grace began with the Incarnation. Use of this calendar predominated until the Gregorian calendar was gradually adopted between the 16th and 18th centuries. [For more on the calendar see our Fast & Fascinating Facts page.] The March 25th feast had also been a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church, and for the most part remained so until the approach of the 20th century--in some countries it is still retained to this day. Changes began in France in 1802, and later for the United States in 1884 by the Third Council of Baltimore--mass attendance was no longer required on the feast day. However, in the Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI, it is still an important feast of the first rank--a “solemnity.” When the feast of March 25th occurs in Holy or Easter Week, its celebration is moved or "transferred" to the Monday after the octave of Easter. Recognizing that the March 25th date chosen for the feast comes a poignantly symbolic nine months before Christmas helps us to remember what is being celebrated--unveiling the vital life-affirming truth at the heart of Annunciation Day and the Incarnation itself--a truth so desperately needed in today’s culture of death.
But the reality of human life beginning at conception is difficult to convey by its very nature--for outside the world of science it is a hidden reality. We can see the challenge of bringing this truth to light in examining the way the Annunciation has been depicted in art. According to some art historians it is the most frequently painted subject matter in Western art. Christian art had always been an effective means of educating a largely non-literate population. Bible stories and the mysteries of the Christian faith had been shown to the faithful through naturalistic paintings, iconography, stained glass, sculpture and other visual mediums. However, this proved difficult in the matter of the Annunciation. Indeed it may be the most challenging to depict, for the awe-inspiring event of the Incarnation takes place mysteriously within Mary, hidden from the viewer's eye. To circumvent this dilemma some early Christian artists fell into the practice of showing the divine infant descending to Mary from heaven, which is visually compelling but erroneous from a theological perspective. The John Brandi Company’s “Our Lady of the Millennium” chosen for this web site is a modern composition that succeeds both aesthetically and theologically--the halo around Mary's womb in this beautiful representation of the prenatal life of Christ, signifies the divinity of Christ before birth.
In the modern age, with both inherent difficulties and peripheral practical problems to overcome, clearly a new effort is required to rescue the spiritually nourishing feast of March 25th from cultural obscurity and restore it as an annual reminder of a fundamental fact: that human life begins at conception--for Christ and for all of us. This is what the “Day of the Unborn Child” is all about. To read more on the feast’s modern incarnation, read Recent Developments.
Article by Frederick G. Holweck from: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 1907, Robert Appleton Co. (Online Edition Copyright 1999 by Kevin Knight)
The web page, Copyright 1999-2004, Women for Faith & Family, PO Box 300411, St. Louis, MO 63130
WLOF FM (newsletter & program schedule), Apr. 2002, published by Holy Family Communications, P.O. Box 745 Amherst, NY 14226