It’s 9 months till Christmas. I’m not telling you this because I want to induce you into a frenzy of pre-Christmas shopping, but because we remember the Annunciation on this date March 25. This is the day, tradition holds, that “the angel Gabriel from heaven came, With wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame,” as the familiar hymn puts it.
This confluence of the Annunciation and Good Friday is rarer than you might imagine. While this is the fifth time since 1900, it won’t happen again for another 141 years, in 2157. Realizing I won’t ever have a chance to reflect on this connection again, I want to do so with you tonight.
One of the privileges I have as a priest is to learn pretty early on about the expected birth of a child. Couples come to me to share the joy of the pregnancy—especially if they’ve had trouble before and have asked for my prayers—and want to know a bit about the protocol for baptism. Joy and wonder and excitement come in to play as these couples contemplate what it will mean to be parents. Trepidation finds its way to the foreground as well as they wonder if they’ll make good on their desires to be loving parents for this new baby. Such wondrous expectation is set in motion.
Which, while not having the usual circumstances, had to be true for Mary as well. She had that unbelievable visit from Gabriel. He told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” She gives her simple assent when told of God’s plan. Surely she wondered about what it meant, how this little one growing in her would reign. And what did the angel mean by “forever”? Would this child live forever?
But now on this same day some thirty years later, Mary sees her son strung up on a cross. Surely she remembered the angel’s words then too, and pictured Jesus as the babe she wrapped in those swaddling clothes.
How could this be part of God’s plan? He was to be the Son of the Most High God, and yet he’s been put to death like any common criminal. As she stood there at the foot of that cross being comforted by John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, her heart was ripped out of her chest.
John Donne, metaphysical poet and priest in the Church of England, wrote a poem in 1608 titled “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day.” Here are a few stanzas:
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. 1
This day abridges Christ’s story down to “Hail, Mary” and “It is finished.” The favor of God rested on her, and the work God gave to the Son came to an end as he breathed his last. “At once a Son is promised her and gone.”
On this day a fast and a feast collide. We rejoice with Mary at the promise of this child, and we weep with her at his cross. Perhaps this collision helps us understand more readily the true depth of Jesus’ work. Far too often we wish to skip over this day with its denial, its flogging and death. We want to avoid the pain and the sorrow in order to arrive at the new life. We want for the Annunciation to coincide with Easter, for there to be only joy.
But that is not how it is for us or for Mary. When I listen to your stories about the times of great pain and disappointment and then of the subsequent renewal and healing, I know the end is sweeter after having gone through the difficulty first. I do not wish the pain on you, or anyone else for that matter, but the tears make the rapture so much more fulfilling. And the tears cannot be avoided.
When we gather and read the Passion on this day, I secretly want for there to be a different ending. For the ones who gather here at the foot of the cross to see Jesus respond to the mocking and come down off that tree showing everyone he is in fact God’s Son. I want for there to be joy and laughter and a great feast to be shared. I want it to be only a feast.
Instead we will continue as we always have and always will—even when the Annunciation and Good Friday once again happen on the same day—we will watch as he breathes his last and his body is taken down and is laid carefully in that tomb. We’ll remember that this day was intended to be part of the work that God sent him to earth to accomplish. That in order for there to be redemption and salvation, Jesus needed to experience the utter worst this world could hurl at him.
And while Mary stands there remembering Gabriel’s visit and Jesus’ first steps and his tween years and his turning that water into wine and his healing touch and his forgiving love, we will sing that plaintive song that causes us to tremble, tremble, tremble. More than anything else we will remember that he was named Emmanuel, God with us. For just as we stand with Mary and all those huddled around the foot of his cross today, so he stands with us as we experience the Good Fridays of our lives. And we can only be grateful that Mary opened herself up to the tremendous joy and heart-wrenching pain of being the God-Bearer. Amen.
- http://fullhomelydivinity.org/articles/john%20donne%20poem.htm, accessed 3/20/16 ↩