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A visit from an angel

Art at Annunciation Church, West Park

WEST PARK | Mary was speechless – first at the sudden appearance of an angel, then by his message: that she would bear the Son of God. Who wouldn’t be?

Gabriel quickly tried to calm her concerns. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” He then said that her son would also be “the Son of the Most High ... and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary may not have understood it all, but she still decided: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” That simple act of trust launched the history of redemption, secured by Jesus.

The encounter is now known as the Annunciation, celebrated each March 25 as a solemnity, or a holy day of the highest order. The date marks nine months before Dec. 25, the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

Going by several names – including Conceptio Christi, the feast of the Incarnation, or simply Lady Day – it’s one of the oldest feasts of the Church. It is named in the records of seventh century church councils, and was likely celebrated as much as three centuries earlier.

Wood paneling behind the altar takes the shape of a heart.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

Wood paneling behind the altar takes the shape of a heart.

Today, the Annunciation is one of the most universally celebrated events in Christendom – not only by Catholics, but by Lutheran, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Gabriel’s address to Mary linked the Annunciation with the birth of John the Baptist as well. To show how God could cause miraculous conceptions, Gabriel revealed that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, was also pregnant.

Mary then visited her and found it was true – and Elizabeth’s child “leapt in her womb” for joy at the sight of Mary. That child grew into John the Baptist, who publicly proclaimed Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

Mary’s wholehearted assent contrasted with the attitude of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband. When Gabriel announced that she would bear John, Zechariah asked, “How am I to know this?” For his skepticism, Gabriel struck him dumb for a time.

In his homily on the Annunciation last year, Pope Francis focused on Mary’s intuitive act of trust over fear. Modern believers can likewise lay aside their fears and invite God into their lives, he said.

“The Lord enters our home, as he did that of Mary in Nazareth, and brings us unexpected amazement and joy,” the Holy Father said.

“In the Scriptures, whenever God appears to those who receive him, he loves to utter those words: Do not be afraid!” he continued. “He sends us a clear and comforting message: Once our lives are open to God, fear can no longer hold us in thrall.”

Centuries of culture have carried the message of the Annunciation, including music, poetry and the visual arts. Murals of the event have been found in Christian catacombs under Rome. The Annunciation also pervades medieval, Renaissance and Baroque art.

Consecrated bread hovers over the Eucharistic chalice, stamped with IHS, an abbreviation for "By This Sign, Conquer." King Constantine is said to have seen the symbols in a vision before a pivotal battle that he won.

Photographer: Jim Davis | FC

Consecrated bread hovers over the Eucharistic chalice, stamped with IHS, an abbreviation for "By This Sign, Conquer." King Constantine is said to have seen the symbols in a vision before a pivotal battle that he won.

Gabriel’s greeting, translated as “Hail Mary,” is part of the prayers in the Angelus and the rosary. Rendered in Latin as “Ave Maria,” it’s the subject of at least seven classical music compositions.

“Ave Maria” has been recorded by a wide variety of singers, including Luciano Pavarotti, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Christina Aguilera, even Beyonce and Frank Sinatra.

The Annunciation is a favorite theme also in the visual arts. At Annunciation Church in West Park, the largest window is devoted to the key event. In that window, Mary has apparently consented to becoming Jesus’ mother, for the Holy Spirit is already overshadowing her in the form of a dove.

The window also has Gabriel handing Mary a white lily, a symbol of purity, to show that she would remain a virgin, indicating that God – not Mary’s future husband, Joseph – was Jesus’ Father.

Annunciation Church was born of a Catholic population that mushroomed in south Broward County in the 1950s. Believers had been worshiping in the area since 1924, served by priests from St. Anthony Church in Fort Lauderdale.

The priests’ work eventually yielded a half-dozen Catholic churches in the area. Annunciation was formed in 1959, with some members transferring from St. Stephen and Visitation parishes.

First Masses were celebrated at a civic center in the Lake Forest neighborhood. After two years, the members moved to Madonna Academy for Sunday Mass. The parish school has operated since 1961. The permanent church structure was completed in 1963. Both now occupy the same campus as Madonna, which merged with Chaminade High School in 1988. Madonna's buildings now house a retreat center and St. Paul Chung Ha Sang Korean mission.

Annunciation members sing in a choir, meet in a men's group and study the Bible. They also hold meetings of the Legion of Mary and the St. Vincent De Paul Society. A pantry provides food to the needy each week.