A most Christian day

Nigel Anthony speaks up for the Feast of the Annunciation

February, and time to finalize the calendar and parish magazine for March. I note that the Feast of the Annunciation must this year be transferred to the Monday, falling as it does on the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Loyal son of the Church though I am, I shall beg to differ. Why?

When the Church argues for the sanctity of life before birth, and against the use of abortion and even the 'morning after' pill as forms of birth control, it lays great stress on the moment of conception. Surely this is right. It is most unfortunate, therefore, that the great feast of Christ's conception is so rarely kept on its own day. It is more often than not transferred to the next available free day. Would we dream of doing the same thing for the feast of Christ's birth? Of course not.

That the tax year still begins on Old Lady Day may seem a quaint anomaly, and it may come as a surprise to learn that March 25 remained the official first day of the year in England until as late as 1752. But we could ask why this was so.

In terms of the calendar, 25 March is the most Christian day of the year. It was the day that marked the conception and the crucifixion of Our Lord, that set the date for Christmas, and began the whole science of the calendar and the calculation of Easter. Of course it was an awkward date, the ancient relic which no longer fits easily into the vast and beautiful structure that developed from it.

When Good Friday fell on March 25 in 2005, it would have been inappropriate to miss out or compromise any element of the liturgy of the day, but there was an added perspective given us by the sufferings of Christ's mother. The evening devotion of Mary's Return from the Cross had a heart-rending poignancy.

This conjunction of birth and death on a single day was of immense significance to earlier Christians, expressive of the great mystery of Our Lord's incarnation and redemption. The power of its ancient collect comes from the clear and explicit juxtaposition of these two themes, 'that as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection.'

The Feast of Christ's Conception is always awkward. It breaks into the ordered progress of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, but wherever it falls it sheds a new light - that is to say an old light - upon the more modern framework.

This year it falls on Passion Sunday (Lent 5). We shall, even if we are alone, keep the Feast of the Conception (Annunciation) on that day, to remind us that Christ was born to die, that his death is our life, and that the remembrance of his gracious incarnation in the womb of Mary points to that moment years later when she held his crucified body in her arms, and the joy of salvation dawned upon the world.

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