If the Annunciation is the most important event in human history, why don’t we celebrate it more?

April 6, 2018

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Launch of The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest, by Mark Byford

An award-winning former BBC journalist and editor has published a compelling account of his search to discover the spiritual meaning of the Annunciation – the gospel story of the encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, informing her that she will conceive a son and must name him Jesus.

In his new book, The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest, ex-BBC Deputy Director General and Head of Journalism Mark Byford shares his intimate conversations with over 100 senior clerics, world-renowned theologians, historians and artists around their interpretations of this pivotal point in Christianity, as described in Luke’s gospel passage (Luke 1: 26-38), and the importance of the related Feast of the Annunciation.

In Western Churches (Anglican, Lutheran and Roman Catholic), although the Annunciation always falls on 25th March – nine months before Christmas Day and the marking of the birth of Jesus – the celebration of the Annunciation in 2018 is transferred to a different date as 25th March is Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week. This year it is moved to 9th April (Low Monday – the Monday after the Sunday after Easter).

Ahead of his book’s official launch at Winchester Cathedral on 9th April, Mark questions why the status and significance of the Annunciation has been lost in today’s world. “The 25th March was once the start of the New Year, known as Lady Day, and an important event in the nation’s calendar,” he said. “Today, if you speak to the average person in the street, the Annunciation is generally not known or understood.”

It was a chance viewing of a picture in London’s National Gallery which inspired Mark’s three-year journey of discovery leading to his new book. The early 18th century painting by French artist, François Lemoyne, on loan from Winchester College, depicts the encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Mark subsequently spoke with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams; the first woman Bishop in the Church of England, Libby Lane; the newly-appointed Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally; the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; his predecessor, the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor; as well as leading members of the Orthodox, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Evangelical and Coptic churches. He was also granted special access to a group of enclosed Carmelite nuns at Thicket Priory near York to discover how the Annunciation story inspires their lives devoted to prayer, contemplation and silence.

“The Annunciation passage is under 300 words long and takes just over a minute to read,” Mark explained. “Yet I found so many different interpretations of its spiritual meaning, and the personal and profound impact it has had on people’s lives. I also learned how the Virgin Mary’s role and status in the story creates such a wide range of reactions, from adoration to condemnation, often highly charged and emotional. What does this tell us about people’s beliefs or non-beliefs, and about certainty and doubt?”

Mark also travelled around England, across Europe and to the Holy Land to view some of the greatest ever works of art, all inspired in some way by the Annunciation story. The book features a vast array of paintings, sculptures, mosaics and tapestries created over the past 2,000 years: from a catacomb fresco in Rome to an Andy Warhol screen print; from a Leonardo da Vinci masterwork in Florence to a Grayson Perry tapestry in Leeds; and from a Sir John Tavener choral work performed in Winchester Cathedral to a specially organised tour of 10 great treasures in the V&A Museum.

The book ends with Mark revealing how his encounters have shaped his own beliefs and understanding of the Annunciation. “I’m not an art historian or a theologian, but having been inspired to discover the story of the Lemoyne painting, it took me on a much bigger journey around the meaning and interpretation of the subject matter,” Mark said. “Certainly, no book has concentrated on such a diversity of interpretations about the Annunciation from such a wide-ranging and authoritative cast list. I now wonder how the profile of the Annunciation – the unique announcement of the conception of Jesus, fully God and fully human – can be revived in today’s increasingly secular, post-modern Britain. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth, Philip Egan, describes the Annunciation as ‘the most important event in human history’. If that is the case, why has it become lost and why don’t we celebrate it more?”

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest is published by Winchester University Press. In a Foreword, BBC Religion Editor Martin Bashir describes the book as “an extraordinary devotional journey – unique and thought-provoking”. The book is on sale now priced £40.00.