Anyone who can do basic math knows that something mysterious happened to a young Jewish girl named Mary nine months before Christmas.
On the early Christian calendar, March 25 was designated as the Feast of the Annunciation -- one of Christianity's great holy days. This feast centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son.
"You have to think this through," said the Rev. Rudy Gray, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina who now leads the state's Baptist Courier newspaper. "If there is no conception, there is no virgin birth of Jesus. Without that you have no sinless life that leads to the crucifixion. Without the cross you don't have the resurrection and the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith."
In St. Luke's Gospel, Mary responds with a poetic song that begins: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."
The Latin translation became known as "The Magnificat," a text familiar to all Catholics who follow the church's holidays. The Annunciation is a major feast in Eastern Orthodoxy and this holy day is observed, to some degree, in other Christian bodies that use the ancient church calendar.
However, in many churches this holy day has vanished. The bottom line is that many Protestants are clear when it comes to knowing what they don't believe about Mary, but not at all sure about what they do believe about this crucial biblical character.
Gray stressed that he remains a Baptist's Baptist who is not trying to make a case for Roman Catholic doctrines about the Virgin Mary. That includes her Immaculate Conception, which Pope Pius IX, claiming infallibility, proclaimed in 1854.
Nevertheless, Gray published an essay last Christmas -- circulated nationally by Baptist Press -- in which he challenged readers to think twice about Mary's role in the life of Jesus.
"Mary has been too highly exalted by the Catholic Church and often devalued too much by the evangelical church," he wrote. "Yet she was chosen by God, empowered by God, blessed by God and obedient to God. She was a virgin, and likely a teen-ager.
"Her task was overwhelming, frightening and awesome: carry and give birth to God's Son, the Messiah of the world."
Gray said that during his three decades of ministry he has never seen Southern Baptists celebrate the Annunciation. This is even true in "moderate" Baptist churches that claim to emphasize the liturgical calendar. It's hard to say why this is the case.
"All I am saying is that Mary is right there, in the Bible," he said, reached by telephone. "We need to recognize the remarkable commitment of Mary and her obedience to God."
In another conservative flock here in America, the Annunciation remains on the calendar -- even if challenges remain when congregations try to celebrate the feast, said the Rev. Daniel Reuning, who taught at Concordia Theological Seminary for 31 years. In retirement, he serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind., which stresses that it is a "confessional, liturgical" Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation.
"I don't know why many people don't celebrate the Annunciation," he said. "It could just be ignorance. … In the past, many of our pastors -- especially those coming from other Protestant churches -- may not have known that we have Marian feasts that have always been part of our Lutheran tradition."
In some churches, there may be a practical reason that pastors struggle to have Annunciation services, he said. March 25 usually falls on a weekday and many members "think they are too busy to go to church on weekdays."
Then again, Reuning added: "Some of our people are really focused on Lent, so they don't notice the Annunciation. … But that is what makes this holy day so powerful to me. The message is that 'He came to save'; 'He came to die for us.'
"So here we are in the weeks that lead to Good Friday and Easter and the Annunciation is right there. It's doesn't interrupt Lent. It's part of that story."