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Monday, March 25, 2013

Nine months until Christmas

If this weren't the Monday of Holy Week, it would be the feast of the Annunciation. It's been moved to the first day outside the octave of Easter, Monday, April 8. But the date (March 25) is important, and would be somewhat lost if I wrote this note in April. The Annunciation is a major feast of the Church, a day upon which we remember the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the incarnation of the Messiah. According to the story in Luke 1..
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
The fact that this feast day falls on March 25 might be thought to be because Christmas is exactly nine months from today, and since Jesus was a perfect baby and his mother was a perfect mother, we need to count exactly nine months backwards from the day of Christ's birth to arrive at the date of his conception and therefore of the Annunciation. Voilà!

The truth is a little more complicated. In fact, it's much closer to the truth to say that the date of Christmas was set as December 25 because it was nine months after today, March 25. In antiquity, it was thought that the prophets would enter the world (either as conceived or born) and die on the same day. Two different calculations were made in early times, based on evidence in the Gospels and in the tradition (that Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath in a year when Sabbath and Passover were on the same day), and people came up with March 25 and April 6 as the date of his death. For Christians, this is enough to start fighting about. This explains the dating of Christmas in the West (under the influence of Rome) as December 25, and in the East, under the influence of Constantinople, at January 6. Of course, to this day, the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox sides of the Church celebrate Christmas on different days. Using the premise that Jesus had to have died on the anniversary of his conception, Christians set the date of the Annunciation as March 25. For some reason I am unable to discover, it is celebrated on the same date in the East and in the West. (Add to this the confusion caused by the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and you have a story of heretics, excommunication, and general unpleasantry. There was, clearly, no perfect time to be a Christian, including the first half of the first century, CE.)

John Collier (2008) "Annunciation"
Who knows what of these midrashic stories in Luke's infancy narrative are factual: they certainly ring true in the heart. God chooses an unmarried young woman to the work of salvation, because "nothing is impossible for God." Mary protests to the angel that she can't do what the angel suggests, because she is a virgin. The angel makes clear that it is God's Spirit that will overshadow her, and the child to be born will be "holy, the Son of God." God seems to choose the unlikely, the untalented, the inept, the "impossible" to do divine work, possibly because it will be clearer to everyone that it is divine work being done, or possibly just to show us how wrong we are most of the time in the way we judge each other and ourselves. Abram and Sarai were too old, Moses was a stutterer and a wanted felon, David was the youngest of the sons of Jesse, and later an adulterer and directly responsible for the death of his lover's husband. The list goes on and on. Mary is another, and not the last, in this long line of the chosen-but-unqualified. It helps us see that everything depends on God, and we don't really have to be so manipulative and controlling with our lives. 


What can I learn from this feast day? Well, it may be that the next thing God asks me to do will look to be impossible, but I have to do it anyway, and it won't matter if I'm not qualified, in my own mind, to do it. It may be to learn to say, "I am the servant of the Lord: let it be done to me as you say." It may be I should reflect on how the Holy Spirit has overshadowed me in my life, and how some divine pregnancy in me has given birth to Christ in the world. With Mary, I shall sing today, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name." 

Henry Tanner (1898), "Annunciation"
I've written five songs that touch a little on these mysteries of the annunciation and incarnation directly. I've linked to them below, with the exception of the songs from Mystery, for which the recording is out of print. "Carol of the Mother" (excerpt above) was a song I developed in the course of an arranging class at Grand Canyon back in the 80s. (All of my music classes were remedial, and had no perceptible lasting effect on me.) Like the other songs on Mystery, the text was coming from a fairly prolific period for me in my first years at St. Jerome, and being in a very creative coterie of liturgical musicians and artists in Phoenix. The octavo is still available at OCP, but no recording is available. "To My Surprise," a duet between Mary and Elizabeth at the "visitation," is a song about faith, joy, and freedom, the elation that can overtake us when we realize that "God has kept his promises" to us.


The others are "Say the Word" and "Canticle of the Turning" from Safety Harbor, and "Every Generation Calls You Blessed" from Christ the Icon. Both "Say the Word" and "To My Surprise" are from a little one-act musical called Mary's Song, which a friend and I wrote for his teen ministry. In Mary's Song, the angel Gabriel is attracted to the physicality of humans, and is a little envious of the high calling that Mary has received, though in a pure and grateful way. Mary acknowledges that no one but the God of surprise could have planned this event, and since God chose her, she vows to choose him. "What shall I do? Say the word!" she sings. That's exactly what God does in her: speak the Word that God has spoken to the cosmos from the beginning, in a permanent, human, and final way. God continues to do the same in us, through the indwelling of the same Spirit in our hearts. What must we do, Lord? Say the word! 

I'll try to remember that each of the time I hear the words "The Lord be with you" over the next week. I hope they will cause Gabriel's words to echo in me, that wonderful greeting to Mary, mother of the Church, mother of Christ, mother of God. "Rejoice, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you." May we, her children, sisters and brothers of Jesus, be aware of how full our lives are of grace today, because God is with us.