Saturday, March 25, 2017

March 25

On the twenty-fifth day of the month Gabriel first came to St Mary with God’s message, and on that day St Mary conceived in the city of Nazareth through the angel’s word and through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind... And then after thirty-two years and three months Christ was crucified on the cross on the same day. And as soon as he was on the cross, creation revealed that he was truly God: the sun grew black, and the day was turned into dark night from midday until the ninth hour.

The above is from a 9th-century Old English Martyrology's entry for March 25, reflecting the unique perception of this very special date throughout the Church's history. (For both the reference itself and the translation, I am indebted here to A Clerk of Oxford - - a blog whose author describes it as a "blog about the literature and history of medieval England, as well as about saints, churches, folklore, Vikings, poetry, and anything else that interests me." For this and other ancient and medieval citations, I am especially indebted to her wonderful post on this subject one year ago when Good Friday fell on March 25.) 

Of course, we don't know the actual date of the Annunciation, anymore than we know the actual date of Christ's birth. (Presumably, if we knew the one then we would also know the other, at least approximately.) As for the date of the crucifixion, the most common historical guesses (based on when Passover would have fallen on a Friday night during Pontius Pilate's tenure in Jerusalem) are April 7, 30 AD, or April 3, 33 AD. So the classical chronology that assigns the Incarnation and the Crucifixion to the spring equinox on March 25 is obviously much more symbolic than literal. But what symbolism! Here (thanks again to A Clerk of Oxford) is the Venerable Bede (672-735) explaining some of this symbolism, connecting Christ's incarnation and crucifixion to the cosmology of creation:

It is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lights every man that comes into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it. And in the celebration of the supreme solemnity, it was necessary that Christ precede the Church, which cannot shine save through Him... Observing the Paschal season is not meaningless, for it is fitting that through it the world's salvation both be symbolized and come to pass.

Having been born on March 25, I have always had a special fondness for the feast of the Annunciation, even long before I learned from our much more symbolically attuned ancestors how filled this date is with so much additional significance for the story of salvation. Over the years (most recently last year), my March 25 birthday has fallen on Good Friday, not to mention Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. And, in 1948, the year of my birth, it fell on Holy Thursday, which may have contributed to my life-long affection for the birthday of the priesthood.

All in all, March 25 is a great day to have been born!

(Photo: Mural of the Annunciation at the Paulist Fathers" "Mother Church," New York City.)

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