Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Incarnation and Passion: On The Annunciation and Good Friday

This Friday marks a curious occasion for observers of liturgical calendars. For whilst this Friday is Good Friday, the day recalling Jesus crucifixion, this Friday - occurring on March 25 - is also the Feast of the Annunciation, recalling the day upon which the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary. By extension, this day was considered to be day on which Jesus was conceived; a deduction arrived at through the early celebration among Christians of Jesus' birth on December 25. So significant was the Feast of the Annunciation that until 1752, it was regarded in England as the commencement of the New Year.

This confluence Good Friday and Annunciation, whilst rare, is not unheard of. The last time this occurred was in 2005; but it won't happen again until 2157 (although if recent attempts to set the date of Pascha/Easter are carried through, it may never happen again). This is a rare occurrence and a special one, because it means that for once the day falls on its 'true' date: in Patristic and Medieval tradition, March 25 was considered to be the historical date of the Crucifixion.* Whereas today many churches will celebrate the Annunciation at a later time, in Patristic and Medieval practice the celebration/commemoration were combined. What this provide us with is an opportunity to consider together Jesus incarnation and death in a way we would not normally do. In Australia there has been a type of this in the appearance of Hot Cross Buns in supermarkets from Boxing Day. But much more than than, we have an opportunity to reflect on the one who did not exploit his equality with God, but became human, learnt obedience and died on a cross. It is the trajectory we see in a passage like Philippians 2, and discernible in the Gospel's account of Christ's temptation. Faced with the opportunity to be the Messiah and not face death, Jesus turned down the advances of the satan and pursued the route which would lead to his death.**

That the incarnation and redemption are bound together is actually on view from the beginning of Matthew's Gospel. In Joseph's annunciation we are told that Mary 'will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.' Jesus assumed our nature, so that from within our flesh we might be redeemed: 'Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death' (Hebrews 2.14-15). Made human in every way, he was to make atonement for our sins.

By the fourth century in the thinking of Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus this would be crafted into the phrase 'What is not assumed cannot be redeemed'. The sharpness of this statement reflects that a lucid awareness of the connection between incarnation and redemption was long present in the early church. Earlier, in the second century, Irenaeus had said:

For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by His relationship to both, to bring both into friendship and concord, and present man to God, while He revealed God to man...For it behooved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death. 
This concurrence of Annunciation and Passion took place in 1608 and was marked by John Donne with his poem: Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day, 1608. Not as well known as other Donne poems, it is nonetheless a rich piece of work which explores the interplay set out in the second line: the ‘hither and away’ Christ comes by the word of Gabriel through the Holy Spirit, and is taken away on the cross:
Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these 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 had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.
The coincidence of feast and fast gains rather than loses from being a rare occurrence, as Donne suggests - falling 'some times and seldom'. Although these coincidences often have their origin as much in pragmatic decisions about the calendar as in theology, with the kind of approach Donne exemplifies here they can be read in meaningful and imaginative ways. Through such eyes, a meeting of feasts like this year's is not exactly a coincidence, but perhaps one of those 'occasional mercies' of which Donne writes elsewhere: 'such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies'.

Whilst it leaves Donne unsure as to whether he should feast or fast, the combination of both holy days brings together two gospel events which are often held apart. There are, in fact, two parts of the same move by the Lord who condescended himself first in human nature, and then in human death. 'This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown | Death and conception in mankind is one: | Or ‘twas in Him the same humility'. This overlay of incarnation and crucifixion, feast and fast, fixed date and movable observance, offer us an insight into the economy of God's salvation: that for us and our salvation, he came down from heaven.

[Update: A Clerk of Oxford has, independently and several sources, published on this here]
* See Augustine's explanation here.
** With thanks to my teacher, Dr David Höhne for this point.

1 comment:

Matthew Moffitt said...

I forgot to mention that the conjunction of these two days is also the reason why the 'One Ring' was destroyed in March 25 in LOTR.