More Important Than Christmas?
Melinda Delahoyde, president of CareNet, has seen the subject of Mary divide Catholics and evangelicals who are otherwise united on their anti-abortion views. "I think evangelicals shy away from Mary and celebrations of her high place in the faith, and that is an understatement. We do not focus on the process of the conception of Jesus and his unborn months from her perspective for various reasons," she says.
Rather than Luke 1, she says, the Bible chapter pro-life Protestants most often draw on as their supporting text is Psalm 139. "This makes sense to me as an evangelical. We would focus on God's knowledge, plan and care for the unborn human life as it is laid out in Scripture and not on the announcement of that unborn life through a particular person." The two passages are simply "two different approaches to the same principle supporting unborn life," she said.
Baylor University philosopher Francis Beckwith, author of several books on abortion, sees another important reason Protestants and Catholics do not have the same response to the Annunciation.
"The reason evangelicals probably don't celebrate the unborn Jesus is the same reason they don't celebrate the teenage Jesus: it's not part of his three-year ministry," said Beckwith, who returned to the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood in 2007, while president of the Evangelical Theological Society. "There is, especially in American evangelicalism, a huge emphasis on pragmatic Christianity: saving souls, getting stuff done. Jesus, in his ministry, was getting stuff done. He wasn't just laying there in a womb or a manger. For Catholics and Orthodox, however, the salvation that evangelicals preach more fervently depends on the lowliness of the Christ and his incarnation. Hence, the different emphases."
Even if evangelical Protestants did take the church calendar more seriously, the Annunciation wouldn't overtake Christmas as the dominant celebration of the Incarnation, says Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College.
"While the medievals talked profusely about Christ in the womb, and most notably Thomas Aquinas on the wisdom of Jesus in the womb, the Annunciation typically fell during Lent and so was overshadowed by preparation for the Passion," McDermott said.
That has shaped an emphasis on Christmas over Annunciation even in the Christian traditions that place a high emphasis on Mary and the church calendar, says McKnight, who notes that the two times of preparation in the church calendar are Lent and Advent. In Roman Catholic tradition, the feast of the Annunciation is moved if it falls during Holy Week. (Not so in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, though due to calendar differences, Orthodox Holy Week no longer falls in March.)
There's good reason for Christmas to trump the Annunciation, says Roger Olson, theology professor at Baylor: "The actual day of Jesus' birth (and some subsequent events of unknown chronological relationship to it) is given more attention in the gospels."
Besides, McDermott noted, "The Annunciation marks not the conception but the announcement of a future conception: 'You will conceive' (Luke 1.31). In church tradition the birth of Jesus has always gotten more attention than the conception, just as human birthdays are remembered in most cultures. Incarnation of course began at conception, but is first seen by the world on someone's birthday."