Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Moving Picture of Eternity

The liturgical year is a complex matrix of many interlocking cycles. The weekly cycle from Sunday to Sunday turns within two slower processions of observances that move through the year. One cycle is a set of fixed celebrations with set calendar dates (Christmas, for instance, always on December 25; Epiphany, always January 6; various Saints' days, each assigned a calendar date usually associated with their death, or sometimes the transfer or relics or some other event). The other is the so-called "moveable feasts," which occur on different dates in different years. Easter is the most obvious of these, and many moveable feasts have their center of gravity at Easter and move forward or backward through the calendar based on when Easter falls. Thus, Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter, and Clean Monday comes 48 days before it. Obviously, moveable observances (not always feasts, as will be apparent in a moment) will pass nearer or farther from various fixed observances in various years.

2016 brings a rare occurrence this coming Friday -- the coinciding of two very solemn observances, one fixed, one moveable: the Feast of the Annunciation, and Good Friday. The Annunciation -- the day the archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive the messiah, and she responded "Be it unto me according to your word," is traditionally fixed on March the 25th. Good Friday is of course the day of the crucifixion; and not a feast but a fast. This conjunction of these two observances is very infrequent. It happened in 2005, but before that it happened last in 1932, before either of my parents were born; it won't happen again this century.

Whenever the Annunciation falls during Holy Week, the practice in the Roman rite of late has been to transfer it to the first unimpeded day after the Easter Octave. (The same happens with the feast of St Joseph, March 19.) The Anglican and Lutheran churches follow suit these days, but of course it was not always so, and it was not so in 1608, when the dean of St Paul's cathedral wrote his poem
Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day

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.

– John Donne
(spelling modernized)
One of the reasons for transferring the Annunciation, of course, is that it is a feast, and the prototype of all feasts is the Eucharist, which is not celebrated on Good Friday (but rather distributed from the sacrament reserved from Maundy Thursday, the night before), and is not eaten at all on Holy Saturday. But in the Byzantine rite, the Annunciation is not transferred, and if it should coincide with either Good Friday or Holy Saturday, the Eucharist is celebrated nonetheless, and in the various hourly prayers things also get rather complicated. Such practices may strike one as an instance of the liturgical impulse to complexity and piling rules upon rules -- the sort of thing Agamben refers to in his critique, in The Highest Poverty, of the drive to make all of life into a liturgy. Or it may look like just another relic of what happened before we were clever enough to use the metric system. Wouldn't it all be so much simpler to just use one calendar instead of this bizarre and inconsistent mesh of solar and lunar approximations inherited from over a spread of 4,000 years? But it is neither a symptom of some delight in minutiae, nor a hangover from uneducated sun worship. There was along-standing tradition that the crucifixion had transpired on this date. Tertullian, or whoever wrote the Adversus Judaeos attributed to him, writes:
And the suffering of this "extermination" was perfected within the times of the seventy hebdomads, under Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the Passover, on the eighth day before the calends [i.e., the 1st] of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses.
Probably, though, the simplest demonstration that the crucifixion is traditionally dated on the 25th of March is that this is the date of the commemoration of St. Dismas, the penitent thief, who was crucified alongside Jesus and asked Him, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." As for the Annunciation, of course it is assigned to March 25. The date follows with perfect logic from the date of Christmas. Just do the math.

By other calculations, March 25 was also traditionally determined to be the date of Adam’s creation and Fall. I did a little digging and found bit of Medieval Latin poetry here, which begins:
Salva festa dies, quae vulnera nostra coerces,
Angelus est missus, est passus et in cruce Christus,
Est Adam factus, et eodem tempore lapsus.
"Sacred festival day that heals our wounds, on which the Angel is sent, Christ suffers and is crucified, Adam is made and on the same falls," is my stammering (possibly wrong) rendering. The poem goes on to mention a number of other important events which all just happened to occur on this date: the slaying of Abel, the blessing of Melchizedek (on Abram), the sacrifice of Isaac, the beheading of John the Baptist, the rescue of Peter and the slaying of James under Herod (as per Acts 12). I'm unsure whether the author here is drawing on earlier tradition in every case or just piling up events on his own initiative.

Incidentally, and I'll stake three pints that it was not by accident, Tolkien also made the New Year begin on March 25, after the War of the Ring:
'Noon?' said Sam, trying to calculate. 'Noon of what day?'

'The fourteenth of the New Year,' said Gandalf; 'or if you like, the eighth day of April in the Shire reckoning. But in Gondor the New Year will always now begin upon the twenty-fifth of March when Sauron fell, and when you were brought out of the fire to the King.
(It was also the first day of the year in England until 1750)

OK, all very interesting, you may say (at lest to be polite), but... well, so what?

A liturgical calendar is not just a set of rules telling you what to do. It's a body of worship you move through in time; a set of corporate spiritual exercises, undertaken together. It is stable, but fluid. It has a pattern, but it is always shifting. If you enter into it intentionally, it can be a gentle and ongoing curriculum of ever-deepening prayer. Scriptures, and collects, and commemorations are paired with each other one year and then move away from each other, in a gesture like the circling of heavenly bodies or the gradual dance of one of Calder's mobiles. There is no single, memorize-this lesson to it; the constellation is always in motion, and this is a good thing. It's a way of reading the Bible in dialogue with itself, with the ongoing tradition of which it is a part, and with the whole community of the faithful, out of which moments of realization can emerge, sometimes slowly dawning on you, sometimes flashing out in startling clarity. The coincidence of the Annunciation and the Passion is obviously a very resonant and potent alignment, fraught with theological and symbolic associations. You may appreciate some of those when you consider them in the abstract; but it is a different matter to pray them, as part of the discipline you and your whole community has undertaken. Donne saw some of this, and sensed more, and wrote what he could (which is a good deal more than I could have). The poem is itself worth meditating upon a good deal, and I'll not try to unpack it here. But I want to point out the way the last line opens upon a matter of real import, moving beyond its own occasion. Donne is writing about a single day in the year, and indeed an exceptional day, a conjunction wonderful and rare. The first line underscores this marvel by repeating (and ending with) the word "today." And yet, he concludes:
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.
Every day. The correspondences of the liturgical calendar are not magical. There is no special power in the day the 25th of March by virtue of the square of five or the proximity to the Spring Equinox or anything else. The calendar -- like every set of spiritual practice -- does reveal something, and without entering into it deeply, you can and will miss much; but what it shows is what is always there.


  1. Definitely no coincidence (Tolkien says so in his letters), just as it's no coincidence that the Fellowship of the Ring sets out on December 25 (which of course in the Third Age had no meaning at all).

    1. Thanks for noting the JRRT letters evidence. But alas, now no one will challenge me on it and I'll not get my three pints. Oh well, it was hardly a fair bet anyway.