Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608
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
Just as happened in England in 1608, this year Good Friday falls on March 25, the date kept in the sanctorale as the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary. England in 1608 still kept the Julian Calendar, not the new-fangled Gregorian one. A sign of counter-dependence on all things papal, England had long resisted the calendar mandated by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582. England was not in its own time zone; it had its own calendar zone, and kept it that way until 1751. England’s colonies everywhere, including North America, kept to the same scheme, and when the “New Style” calendar went into effect in September 1751, by fiat September 14 followed immediately on September 2. Widespread grumbling about the twelve “lost days” ensued.
I have given in to this calendar wonky-ness for two reasons. First, it is the sort of thing that I am likely to do. But second, any study of the calendar, secular or ecclesiastical, is likely to turn complicated. If you need to say more than “today is Tuesday,” the argument will turn wonky. Anyone who has read Thomas Talley’s great book on The Origins of the Liturgical Year will recognize the complexities of measuring time. So Good Friday and Annunciation did fall together in 1608 in England. Because of the rules of transferring feasts falling in Holy Week or Easter Week, this year the Episcopal Church will join most other Western Churches in keeping Annunciation on April 4—just one more technicality of the calendar.
John Donne’s poem is exquisite in its own right, and I will spare you the nuisance of having to attend to my own parsing of it. A matter external to the poem, however, bears some attention. The collect for the Annunciation is an ancient one, used on the feast day and still repeated daily through most of the year by those who keep the devotion of the Angelus:
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Note the prayer’s quick movement from the angel’s message to the Paschal Mystery, passion and resurrection. The collect preserves an echo from the Church’s deepest memory, that incarnation is not a moment apart from passion and resurrection. Anglican understandings of atonement have run in this direction from the time of the reformation. Arthur Lyttelton’s essay on “The Atonement,” in Lux Mundi (1889) makes explicit what had been inherent in the tradition, that atonement is a holistic act of God in Jesus Christ, not isolated on the cross but encompassing the whole of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension—and beginning with the Annunciation.
The difference between the lunar year (12 lunar months, equaling about 354 days) and the solar year (about 365 days) accounts for many of calendar’s puzzles. The Christian calendar is Venn diagram of the lunar and solar years. The most ancient and solemn of the Church’s feasts, called Pascha in antiquity and still so named in Orthodoxy and Easter in English-speaking cultures, is a lunar calculation (Sunday after first full moon) with a solar qualifier (after the vernal equinox). Thus the date for Pascha, Easter, fluctuates, as festivals based on lunar calendars will do. Dates for Ash Wednesday, Ascension Day, and the Day of Pentecost all depend of the date of Easter.
There is strong indication, however, that some locales in Christian antiquity used a solar-calendar reckoning for Pascha. (Talley, cited above, argues this likelihood in detail.) The solar date so chosen was, you guessed it, on or about March 25. If so, then the Annunciation the more ancient feast than Christmas, whose date would have been calculated nine months prior to March 25. Christmas hence is rooted in the Pascal mystery.
Donne’s poem is a grand intuition of this historical likelihood, just as the Annunciation collect provides a Paschal relic in its wording. In any event, the angel’s whispering to the Virgin, and her assent, signaled God’s redemption of the world in the coming of the Word, who is God before all ages. Along with the cross and resurrection and all the rest, it is an atoning moment in what God is doing for the whole universe. It is a happy coincidence whenever Good Friday falls on March 25.