Now ye need not fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save!
— John M. Neale
The feast of Christmas is over, but it’s still Christmastide – merry Christmas! The manger scene is in the sanctuary, wreaths are still up, and extra lights remain strung here and about. It’ll be Christmas season until at least Epiphany (and beyond, for those in the know). So, stock up on the eggnog, throw another log on the fire, and keep the carols playing on the iPod. Who cares if the 24/7 Christmas station has reverted to its regular classic rock format. Chestnuts are still roasting on the fire as far as we’re concerned!
The Incarnation is about the biggest deal in the history of the world, and the Church wants us to keep feasting. It’s good for us, it’s good for the world, to mark with extravagance this moment in the history of our race – this demarcation that divides preparation for redemption and its actual realization in the incarnate Word.
At the same time, the Church wants us to keep the incarnation in perspective. You’ll note I hedged earlier by calling the Incarnation “about” the biggest deal in the world. That’s because the events of Holy Week are a bigger deal still. As wondrous and spectacular as Christmas is –the Creator taking on creatureliness, the divine taking on diapers – it’s not an end in itself, but rather directed toward a climactic triumph wrested from epic tragedy. There are hints of this in the gifts of the Magi – myrrh being associated with embalming and death – but it happens well before that. All throughout the Christmas octave in fact.
And it happens, as it always does, through the liturgy. The very day after the Christmas itself – the second day of the feast – was St. Stephen the Protomartyr. One day we’re cooing over the miracle of God made flesh in a wriggling baby, and the next we’re contemplating the extreme consequences of that event: Witness to the point of death. Later in the week, we had two more liturgically red days: The Holy Innocents on December 28 and St. Thomas Becket the day after that.
But even St. John the Evangelist on December 27 directed our attention forward to the Passion. You’d think that the feast honoring the Beloved Disciple – the one Apostle who wasn’t martyred for the faith and the inspired mystic-poet responsible for the lofty fourth Gospel – would be more anchored in the crib. Yet the Gospel for John’s feast yanks us forward to the end of the story. Jesus is dead; the disciples are hiding out – what to do, what to do? Then Mary Magdalene shows up with startling news: The Lord’s body is missing! After outrunning Peter to the tomb, John “bent down and saw the burial cloths there.” The two men go in, examine the evidence, and wrestle with the implications. “The one who had arrived at the tomb first,” John himself relates, “saw and believed.”
If you went to Mass that day, you heard that Easter anecdote proclaimed in the midst of ongoing Christmas celebrations. To an outsider, the wreaths and manger and yuletide trappings would’ve seemed out of place as that Gospel was proclaimed. It’s a startling conflation of the entire redemptive narrative into one liturgical moment, a “displacement,” as the homilist pointed out at my parish on Wednesday, that shifts our attention to and fro across time. One minute we were in Bethlehem with John, marveling at “what we have looked upon and touched with our hands…for the life was made visible,” and the next moment we’re with him at the grave on the verge of surrender.
This isn’t the only time the Church yanks around our liturgical attention, and it’s not even the most startling example. For me, the most disorienting moment of the entire calendar is the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25. Often this late spring date crops up in the midst of Lent, and sometimes it collides with Holy Week or Easter. Occasionally, like last year, it coincides with Good Friday, and there’s an ancient tradition that assigns the actual crucifixion to that very date. “So the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived,” comments St. Augustine, “corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried.”
In any case, when such liturgical overlaps occur, the Annunciation is typically transferred to the Monday after the Easter Octave – as it will be next year when March 25 happens to correspond with Palm (Passion) Sunday. Regardless of when it’s observed, however, it’s a decidedly Christmasy feast that seems seasonally out of place. We’ve got ashes or Easter bonnets, and suddenly we’re back to the blessed babe in the womb. Plus, even when the Annunciation is transferred away from the Sacred Triduum and the Octave, the date itself still conjures up the crib because it’s exactly nine months before Jesus’ birthday – a calendrical nod to gestational reality.
Thus, the Annunciation always brings us up short. When it rolls around, we’re either anticipating the Passion or celebrating the Resurrection, and we hear Gabriel say to Mary, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Like the late December Easter Gospel of St. John’s feast, the late spring Annunciation Gospel is a stark alignment of Christmas and Easter – of redemption’s promise and its accomplishment. Mary’s surrender, her fiat and “let it be done to me as you say,” is the beginning of our salvation – and the genesis of all that follows in Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Holy Sepulchre. “Being obedient,” St. Irenaeus writes, “she became the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.” Her Advent fiat is the model for our own Easter submission to Christ; her “yes” is the template for every Christian’s embrace of the cross and new life.
Here I think it’s noteworthy that our Eastern brethren – that is, the Orthodox and Oriental churches along with Eastern Catholics – never transfer the Annunciation away from Passion Week or Easter. Instead, they assimilate the wintry Incarnation earthquake into their springtime liturgical observances. That’s not our tradition in the Western, but there’s nothing stopping us from doing something similar in our homes, so don’t pack away the crèche just yet. On Palm Sunday this coming year, maybe set out an angel and the Blessed Virgin one more time. You’ll hearken back to your Christmas merriment that set the trajectory for your anticipated Easter joy. Alleluia!