|The Christ Child Asleep on a Cross by William Blake|
I'm sure it has happened before, but I cannot recall a time when the feast of the Annunciation (March 25th) coincided with Good Friday. It will not happen again until the year 2157. And yet how appropriate that the two holy days should be linked.
The Annunciation is when the Angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and announced that she was chosen to give birth to the Son of God. This is the turning point of all history: not just human history, but the history of the entire universe. Because until that moment, Creation did not contain something within itself that it would after Mary's words: the Creator.
Yes, God is present in a special way in all things He creates, in the same way that the author of a story is present in the characters and places about which he writes. But the Incarnation is the moment the author entered the story. It was the beginning of our salvation.
And how appropriate that it should now fall on Good Friday. I would imagine that when we think of the Baby Jesus, we do not immediately think of the Passion. But if you read Matthew and Luke's Gospel, all the signs are there. Fr. Raymond Brown wrote a very informative little book called An Adult Christ at Christmas, in which he lays out all of the foreshadowings of the Passion found at the Nativity.
Herod, the Jewish leader, wanted to kill him, just like the Sanhedrin. The Magi bring signs of kingship to Him in the form of gifts and there is a literal sign of kingship on His cross. He is born in Bethlehem, which means "House of Bread" and is immediately placed in a manger, which is a feeding trough for the animals. At the Last Supper, Christ took the bread of His Body and gave it to feed the world.
So the connections to the beginning and the end are all there. This is no wonder since He is the Alpha and the Omega. We go from the beginning of the Silent Night to "It is finished."
But let us return even earlier, to the exact moment of Christ's conception and see the connections to His Passion.
The angel comes to Mary and brings her good news. In the Gospel of Luke, an angel comes to comfort Jesus during His agony in the Garden. I always like to imagine that this angel was also Gabriel, who was there to usher in the beginning of His life and prepare Him for His death.
Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be called "holy, the Son of God." (Lk 1:35) It is only after the centurion witnesses Christ's patient endurance of all the torture and hate thrown at Him that he says, "Truly this was the Son of God." (Mk 15:39)
And of course there is the most striking similarity in the responses of Mary and Jesus to the will of the Father. When told that she is chosen to be the Mother of God, Mary says, "Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word." (Lk 1:38) And when the time comes for Christ to make His ultimate decision to stay or run away, He says to His Father, "Not my will, but Your will be done." (Mk 14:36)
There is also much to get from the contrasts between the two events. The angel says to Mary, "you have found favor with God." (Lk 1:30) And on the cross Christ cries out "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34) And that moment of Incarnation is when God the Son is forever bound in a special way to one of His creatures, the Virgin Mary. And yet at the cross, when He had nothing left to give, He even gave her away as well.
But for me, what a day like today reminds me is that both the Incarnation and the Passion are part of the singular event of Salvation. Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary so that he could be laid in the tomb of Joseph. Someone once said of Jesus, "All men are born to live. One man was born to die."
What today reminds me is that our Catholic faith is not one that is primarily about human beings reaching up past earthly things to only the spiritual. Plato's philosophy was aimed in this direction. He looked at the material world as a distraction from the spiritual things: the Forms. Even the soul is trapped in the prison of the body, according to him. So the goal of life is to move away from the perceptible, material things and think mainly of the spiritual, universal, abstract things.
But God does the opposite. Our Catholic faith is primarily about God coming down form the heavens and becoming a part of the material world He created. He does not disdain or dismiss the material world: He redeems it. Common things like water can now cleanse the soul. Ordinary bread and wine can be transformed into so much more.
We are human beings, not angels. This means that we are bodily creatures and very often we respond to the concrete more than to the abstract. It is difficult to risk your life for "humanity," but we could more easily do it for the person we love the most. And the unlimited, infinite God became limited and concrete today so that we could understand God and ourselves better.
Pope Benedict XVI has, to my mind, the most profound understanding of why Christ had to die on the cross. The Holy Father made clear that it was not that God the Father demanded blood and pain from His Son. If that was the case, we would be worshipping an evil blood-god who revels in torture. So when asked why, then, did Jesus have to die on the cross, Pope Benedict says, "Because that is the only way we would ever truly know who God is."
God is love.
And while this is true, that statement is abstract. What does it mean? God had to show us.
Love is the cross. Love is giving everything away, receiving nothing in return. His love goes all the way. It holds nothing back. He has nothing left to give. We can never doubt how much God loves us because He did not withhold from us His only Beloved Son. I can look at the cross and I can see love with my own eyes, incarnated in front of me.
And when I see who God really is and that He is love, I can also see what I am called to be. I was given this body, this life, so that I could give it away like Christ. "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Mk 10:45) Today reminds me that "I have been crucified with Christ and yet I live. And the life that I live now is not my own but Christ lives in me. Inasmuch as I live in the flesh, I live in the faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given Himself up for me." (Gal 2:19-2)
And of course I fail at this often. But just as Christ fell on the way to the cross and got up again and again, so must I.
I was incarnated in the womb of my mother and I also have a destiny to pick up my cross every day.
So do you.
We only have one life on this Earth. Today reminds us that Jesus had that same one shot at an earthly life.
Imagine you knew that you only had 33 years on this Earth before you died. How would that affect you? I think that many of us would think something akin to "I only have 33 years. How much can I get out of life?"
Jesus Christ only had 33 years from the moment of the Annunciation to Good Friday. And He knew it. And yet when you read the Gospels, you see a man who looked at that narrow window of life and said:
"I only have 33 years. How much can I give?"