"Today is the beginning of our salvation," proclaims the Orthodox Church's troparion (hymn) for the Annunciation. Celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas, this feast is dedicated to the announcement of Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to God in the flesh.
The Archangel Gabriel was sent from God to greet the Virgin, saying, "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women!" He told her that she would bear a Son and name Him Jesus, and that He would be the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. In humility, Mary accepted this news, saying, "I am the handmaid of the Lord."
The icon depicts Mary seated, spinning a roll of thread. An ancient Christian tradition explains that she was repairing the curtain of the Temple—the same curtain that would be torn when Jesus died. Her head is bowed in submission to the news which Gabriel, at left, brings to her. He is holding a scepter, a symbol of authority, and raises his hand in a gesture of blessing.
This great feast is celebrated on March 25 after an early Christian belief that Jesus was conceived on the day when the passover lamb was chosen. This follows an even earlier Jewish tradition which stated that the Old Testament prophets died on the same date as their conception. In the Eastern Church, when Pascha falls on March 25, the two feasts are celebrated together in a great event called Kyriopascha. In the West, New Year's Day was observed on March 25 for over 1000 years; in England, this was the case until 1752.