Sunday, 25 March 2018

On the Annunciation and Palm Sunday Falling on the Same Day

Of course, it doesn't really. The Annunciation has been moved from its normal date to Monday 9 April, by definition of presumably the Pope, the Church of England and anybody else who marks such things not wanting it to fall on a Sunday. And yet you wouldn't move Christmas Day if it landed on a Sunday, and which is more important?

The Annunciation was up to the 17th Century regarded as one possible start of the new year. A fitting day - the date when God begins to reconcile humanity by becoming that most fragile, brand-new thing, a conceived child. The date when Redemption begins. And that wasn't lost on that devout Catholic and myth-wrangler, JRR Tolkien, when he set 25 March as the date the Ring was destroyed and Middle Earth was freed from the dark shadow. John Donne's wonderful poem reflects on a year when the Annunciation actually fell on its true day - when Good Friday was 25 March.

Because, in that curious circularity of things, the Annunciation got its date from the traditional date of the Crucifixion - the date when the Redemption was complete. The idea being that Jesus lived on earth a whole number of years - from conception to crucifixion. And then an age was over. And in the spring of every year, the cycle begins again. The promise of new life is mingled with a bitter death, and life rises fresh.

This year, the most important date in the Christian calendar falls on Palm Sunday. That's what you get with a calendar that depends partly on the sun and partly on the moon - a constant reshuffling of dates, new alignments, new connections, new understandings.

And so a young woman, eager for her marriage to the village carpenter? Or maybe not. Maybe he's the old widower, and the marriage is arranged for her - and he brings stability to the partnership while she brings youth and fertility. Either way. She's got a wedding coming up. And she discovers that, as well as being the carpenter's wife, she's going to be God's mother. And she is shocked and afraid, but resolves that she will go with it.

And 34 or so years later, her son is also overturning expectations. Surely he's going to be the Messiah? But how can he be? This man from a humble family, from the wrong town, whose only violence is against the pious hawkers of sheep and doves in the Temple, who loves women and foreigners and touches the lepers and lays his hands on the dead. He rides into town - but on a donkey, not a warhorse or an elephant. His rule, it seems, comes in peace. He overturns expectations - and underwhelms. When he should be raising an army, he's blessing children.

And over both always hangs a shadow - the Cross. The throne that Jesus is promised - the coronation to which he is riding - is no comfy place of peace and ease. Or, at least, not for now. The conception leads to the joy of a new baby only through the pain of birth. The arrival of the King leads to Resurrection only through the Cross, the nails, the blood, the pain, the crying out. The angel announces the King to Mary. The disciples announce the King to Jerusalem. And his face is ever turned, ever set, on Golgotha.

Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.

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