Today is a paradox. It is a mystery. Behold, God is conceived. But also behold, God dies. Today, we as Eastern Catholics celebrate two of the most important feasts on our calendar, and they are a seeming contradiction when placed together. March 25 is always the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is the day when we celebrate the visit by the archangel Gabriel to the Theotokos in which Mary learned she was to be the Mother of the Christ.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
But it is also Good Friday, the day when we celebrate the Passion and Death of Jesus. We commemorate his brutal saving Passion.
“And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Having said this, He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:46)
The two feasts appear to be contradictory. How can we honor the Incarnation of Christ and His Death at the same time? Our Roman Catholic (and certain Eastern Churches) brothers transfer the Feast of the Annunciation to another day. We do not. How can we do this?
Well, practically speaking, we haul out some special rubrics and we celebrate Entombment Vespers (my second favorite Byzantine service) followed by the Divine Liturgy for the Annunciation followed by the Procession with the Shroud and Veneration of the Shroud. It is beautiful. We have special books made. We pray for our clergy and cantors. It works. It is beautiful.
But why do we do it?
I could be sassy and say that we’re Byzantine Catholics. We like mysteries. (I mean, we do…) But there is more to it than that. We believe that feasts of the Incarnation trump solemnities. Also, in the early Church, the two feasts were celebrated together. (That’s also when we believe that a multitude of events occurred including Noah’s Ark coming to rest on Mount Ararat, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the Destruction of the Ring of Power on Mount Doom.) We believe that they are inextricably linked as two of the three most important mysteries of our salvation. Together with the Resurrection, which follows on the 27th, these events usher in a new springtime or a season of new life. (Here’s a great article that looks at that in more depth.)
There is an odd beauty in this paradox. The immortal God becomes a human child in the womb of a teenaged woman and the immortal God surrenders his life for the salvation of all humanity. It is the ultimate feast of the Divine Condescension. On their own, each of these feasts allow us to see the love of God and the humility of God in a clearer way. Together, they are a formidable reminder of just how much God loves us and just how far he is willing to go to be with us.
The beauty of Christianity is that it introduces us to a God who loved us so much that he could not bear to be apart from us. Because of that, He sent His Son into the world (the Annunciation) so that the Son could die (Good Friday) for the salvation of all mankind. In many ways, it is meet and just that these two feasts should coincide.
In 1608, these two feasts overlapped, and the poet and future Anglican priest John Donne wrote a beautiful reflection on this. Donne looks at Mary who both becomes a mother and surrenders her only child on this joined feast. He looks at the gift the Church gives us by uniting these feasts and allowing us to contemplate Christ’s love for us and his humility.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
This day is ultimately a reflection on the humility of Christ. God became man, as St. Athanasius said, so that man might become gods. He became human to unite us to Himself. He joined Himself to our lowly state so that He might unite us to His divine state. That is love. That is humility. And so, it is (to me) truly right that (when the calendar so allows) we celebrate the Annunciation and the Passion in one day. It is good that we are reminded of just how much our God loves us. And what better way to remind us of that than to give us what appeared to be the first and the last of the life of Jesus in one day?
(The publication time for this post was very carefully chosen. It is intentional.)
NB: I know that John Donne wasn’t perfect.