'Feast of the Incarnation'

If we're truly a pro-life Church, we ought to be celebrating Christ's conception with as much joy as we bring to his birth.

So says Father Charles Samperi, pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Spring, Texas, when asked about ways families can commemorate the Annunciation on March 25.

“That was Christ,” he adds, “at that very moment Mary gave her fiat.” The Annunciation, he points out, is really the “feast of the Incarnation.”

We're sold. But what's a family to do?

One way to highlight the importance of the feast is to make a family Annunciation candle, says Helen Hull Hitchcock, a co-founder of St. Louis-based Women for Faith & Family (www.wf-f.org). “This provides all kinds of teaching moments,” she adds. “Children love candles.”

Here's how it works: With a parent's help, the kids hollow out a little nook in a stout pillar candle — preferably white, to symbolize Mary's purity. Inside this, they place a small figure or picture of the baby Jesus. Next, using flattop pushpins and a round swatch of cloth veil, they seal the nook shut. The baby is hidden within the body of the candle, as Jesus was hidden within his mother from the Annunciation until Christmas Day.

To show that the Annunciation is a celebration of God becoming man, Hitchcock suggests parents and children “talk about what it means that Christ became one of us from the moment of conception in Mary's womb, not at some other time” of his development in the womb.

To emphasize the point, she suggests lighting the candle on each Marian feast day until Christmas morning. At that time, of course, the children remove the veil and place the Baby Jesus in the family crèche.

“We always celebrate this as the pro-life holiday — the day God became man,” says Ellen Tsakanikas, who lives in Virginia with husband Nick and six children. “Our 3-year-old knows that's when Jesus became a baby.”

The Tsakanikas family “always prays that day for any of the moms expecting,” she says, pointing out that the prayer includes any troubled mothers in the world who need someone to help them.

For a mealtime prayer, Hitchcock suggests the father use the collects for the Mass of the Annunciation.

Then there's Gabriel's angelic salutation, the “Hail Mary,” the joyful mysteries of the rosary — and the Angelus (see “The Angelus,” page XX).

“This feast gives us an excuse to start the Angelus now,” Hitchcock says. Her family continues it daily during Lent and beyond, despite some occasional grumbling. But when a teacher asked her little daughter's class who knew the Angelus, only one hand went up. Her little girl returned home mighty proud that day.

Blessed Imaginations

In Missouri, Noreen McCann says her family of eight — the kids range in age from 6 to 17 — has incorporated the Angelus into daily life. “That's our traveling prayer, too,” she says.

To talk about the Annunciation, McCann uses lots of pictures from religious calendars and books. She color-copies, enlarges and laminates these. “I want the children to be familiar with art,” she explains.

In the Tsakanikas household, all major feast days and holy days are anticipated and commemorated. Together, they place their icon of the Annunciation from the family prayer room on a stand.

“Because the icon is bright and colorful, the children pick out things in the picture,” Tsakanikas says. “My husband goes through each figure with them.” They've got a qualified teacher — he's studying to be a deacon.

“My husband reads bedtime stores to the older kids,” Hitchcock says. This practice, she notes, has opened an avenue of picture-aided learning that extends beyond feast days.

“Don't think children aren't interested in looking at something complicated, like medieval art,” she says. “Kids really enjoy learning about those double meanings of things.”

For example, children can be taught the symbolism of flowers in the paintings, Hitchcock says. They get to be creative in searching their imagination for connections between things, events and ideas. And exploring symbolism “helps them understand the depth and meaning of Catholic tradition and helps to connect with believers throughout the history of the Church,” she says. “It's a way of passing on not only family tradition and practice but also the heritage of their Catholic family.”

On her Web site, Hitchcock encourages visitors to stress that all our senses and physical selves are involved in understanding the truths of the faith. This can be underscored even when doing small projects together, such as designing a floral centerpiece to honor the Blessed Mother.

The flowers should be those named for and connected with Our Lady. Naturally, carnations can be part of the Annunciation centerpiece because their name symbolizes the Incarnation. Their colors symbolize love and life. Baby's breath symbolizes innocence, purity and the power and breath of the Holy Spirit. Other flowers recall Mary's humility and purity.

McCann stands an appropriate statue of Mary beside the flowers. “I make the table festive,” so it's clear this isn't just another day, she says. The family meal includes some special dessert.

Meanwhile, the Tsakanikas family holds a party to celebrate the day the Baby Jesus first came into his mother's womb. This leads up to Christmas, which they traditionally celebrate as a birthday party for Jesus.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.