In three days, Christians worldwide—Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox—will celebrate Palm Sunday. Because of differences in the calendars used by eastern and western churches, such a joint celebration is rare (and will be increasingly so).
But most evangelical Protestants are today sitting out as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some liturgical Protestants celebrate one of the most significant events in the New Testament: the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
One might expect American evangelicals to be among the most enthusiastic celebrants of what is known as the Annunciation. For starters, it focuses on two issues that theologically conservative Protestants have long defended against theological liberals: the historicity of the Virgin Birth, and Christ's unique divinity. In a theological sense, the Annunciation could be of greater significance than Christmas.
"It connects directly to the incarnation, while Christmas (whatever the true date) falls around nine months after the incarnation," says pro-life writer Randy Alcorn. "It is basic Christian doctrine that Christ became flesh at the moment the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, at the moment of fertilization. He became human at the exact point all others become human, the point of conception."
And so the Annunciation's implications are intensely political as well as theological. Few days on the Christian calendar, and few passages in Scripture, are so relevant to the abortion debate. For example, Alcorn notes that since Mary "hurried" to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:39) after Gabriel's visit, it's likely that Jesus was not yet fully implanted in Mary's womb when Elizabeth's unborn son, John, "leaped for joy" (1:41-44). That, he suggests, helps to eliminate hairsplitting over when personhood begins.
Some Protestants have attempted to draw out the pro-life implications of the Annunciation. The group Lutherans for Life, for example, offers bulletin inserts, sample sermons, and other resources to make March 25 a catalyst for fighting abortion. But most Protestant churches, if they have an annual service devoted to the unborn, instead commemorate the January 13 anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision with Sanctity of Human Life Day.
Part of the reason may be that the Annunciation has not historically been a day for the church to focus on the unborn in general.
"Until modern science made abortion such an easy thing (they had it in the ancient world, of course—hence ancient medical oaths against it—but it was fairly primitive and often dangerous), and also made us far more aware of life in the womb, it wasn't such a major social issue," says Anglican theologian and bishop N.T. Wright. "'Christian' societies knew, from the days of the Roman empire, that abortion and infanticide were basically pagan practices, so the question wasn't raised."
By the time abortion became a major issue, says Dallas Theological Seminary New Testament professor Darrell Bock, "Protestant worship patterns were well established."
It's those Protestant worship patterns—and what they were in large part protesting—that historians, theologians, and pro-life activists agree are at the heart of the biggest reason why even the most pro-life evangelicals don't do much with the Annunciation.
"The Annunciation is not celebrated because it is about Mary and because the Roman Catholics make so much of it. It's that simple," says Scot McKnight, religious studies professor at North Park University. "The strong pro-life people are also often the strongest anti-Catholics, though they'll cooperate with Catholics against abortion." Similarly, he says, not celebrating the Annunciation is a symptom of Protestant aversion to the church calendar. "The only events of any significance in the evangelical church (non)calendar are Christmas and Good Friday/Easter." Even Pentecost is rarely celebrated in most congregations, he notes.