Christmas in Lent
What's going on here? We sang the Gloria in Excelsis and the Triple Hallelujah. The crosses aren't shrouded. The coffin in the corner of the chancel is gone. The purple paraments have been replaced by white? It can only be Christmas in Lent!
Today we celebrate The Annunciation of our Lord where the angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary to announce that she was to bear the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus. This is an immovable feast that is often missed and moved. Let me explain.
Moveable feasts are festivals, or church holidays, which move with the dating of Easter which as you know moves each year. In fact, Easter itself is a moveable feast as are all the feasts connected to it: Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Ascension, Pentecost. Immovable feasts are attached to a date on the calendar. The Annunciation is attached to March 25 which is 9 months before the birth of Jesus on Christmas. The Annunciation has been a festival in the Latin speaking from which we descend since 600 AD (The Lutheran Liturgy, Reed, 556).
The Lutherans kept it on their Church calendar as well, but I'll bet few of you have ever celebrated it. That's because it comes during Lent. It could come during Holy Week even on Easter Sunday itself. Here at Trinity several times I've foregone celebrating the Annunciation. Several times March 25 fell on a Lenten Vespers. Once it fell on Maundy Thursday.
Historically, however, the Church didn't want The Annunciation missed so this immoveable feast was moved. It was moved if it fell within Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday or on a Sunday during Lent or after Easter. More interesting still are the times it wasn't moved. More about that at the end. For now, think how nice it is to hear Christmas without the emotion, themes, sights, sounds, and smells of the secular Christmas filling up your senses. No chestnuts roasting, no sliver bells ringing, no Christmas music evoking good and not so good memories. Just a virgin named Mary and an angel named Gabriel telling her she was the virgin predicted 800 years before who would conceive.
Although the main characters in the appointed Gospel are Mary and Gabriel, the Annunciation is a festival of Jesus not Mary. This has been lost historically. Popularly it was known as "Lady Day." But you can tell it's all about Jesus. God sends Gabriel to Mary not for a visit but to announce she will be the Mother of the Christ. The Collect appointed for this day is about the incarnation, Passion, cross, and resurrection of Jesus Christ not even mentioning Mary. Likewise the Proper Preface appointed for today is the one for Christmas which speaks of the Mystery of the Word made flesh giving us a new revelation of the Glory of Father in the Person of Jesus.
In the Annunciation Gabriel spells out for us who Jesus is and what He came to do. Unless you're right about both of these you'll be wrong about the Person of Jesus, wrong about God the Father, and wrong about salvation, so this is critical stuff. Gabriel tells Mary to name her Child Jesus. This name tells us both who Jesus is and what He came to do. His name means "Jehovah saves." Who is He? This flesh and blood baby that would grow in Mary's womb for 9 months and be delivered like any other baby is none other than the One who walked with Adam in the garden, ate at Abraham's house, met with Moses on Sinai, and was seen by Isaiah in His temple. And what is Jehovah in flesh and blood here to do? Save.
Of course if you don't need saving or have any sense that there is a god this means little if anything to you. Then this isn't Christmas in Lent for you; there is no Christmas for you without reindeer, Santa, trees, and eggnog. But if there is something bigger and better than man and his very best thoughts in this universe, if you have a sense of accountability before this bigger, better being for all that you have ever said, did, or thought, then the announcement that this bigger, better Being is here to save is big news.
One like us, One with hands, legs, fingers, toes, brain, heart, lung and stomach will be born without sin. He will be placed in the womb of the Virgin by the Holy Spirit. He will come upon her bringing the power of the Most High God to overshadow her. As a result, He is the Holy One. You are not the Holy One. You are the fallen, guilty, sinful, unholy one. Moreover, this Man who is also the Son of God will rein forever, says Gabriel. His kingdom will never end. Outside of His kingdom everything ends. Outside of His kingdom sin, Death, or the Devil destroy everything, but not in His kingdom.
As usual, I'm a little ahead of myself. Let's get back to this holy day, this feast day, this festival, this holiday. The Annunciation of our Lord is where Lent really begins. Here is where the One Isaiah called the Man of Sorrows first met the sadness. Here is where the One Isaiah said would be acquainted with grief was first introduced to it. Here is where the One who would bear our transgressions first picked them up.
I told you the Annunciation makes plain who Jesus is, God in flesh and blood, and what He came to do, save us. Let's flesh out the latter a little more. To save us Jesus had to fulfill all righteousness; He had to meet God's standard of righteousness. This required Jesus being both actively righteous, i.e. doing the right things, and being passively righteous, i.e. suffering without sin for our lack of righteousness.
This actively keeping the law and passively suffering for us all began in the Virgin's Womb. We know from Scripture that children are sinful from conception. We know Jacob and Esau fought in their mother's womb. We know Perez and Zerah struggled to be born first. But not Baby Jesus. No rebellion, no struggle, literally the perfect Baby. But all that sinners deserve and should suffer to pay for their sinfulness, the innocent Baby Jesus suffered in the womb. Our babies also sometimes suffer, but they don't do so to pay for sins. Jesus did.
That suffering begins today. Painters have captured this thought. Jan Van Eyck's 15th century painting of Mary and Jesus in a church does. You see mother and child in the foreground. Jesus is happily playing with pearls around His mother's neck, but in the background, you need a magnifying glass to see it, is Jesus hanging crucified on the cross (The Western Experience, plate 18). There's another painting which I can't find the citation for which depicts Baby Jesus in Mary's arms. Off to the side is a cup with a cross on it. This is the cup of God's wrath against all mankind's sins that this Baby will grow up and drink. Baby Jesus sees it and is struggling away from it; Mary doesn't see it.
I told you this immovable feast was moved if it fell on a Sunday. What is more interesting are the two cases it wasn't moved. If it was the anniversary of when that church was founded or if it was Palm Sunday. On these two occasions the weightiness, the gravity, the significance of the Incarnation wouldn't be lost. Think about it. The Annunciation celebrates the moment the Body of Christ came into the world. The Church, says Paul, is the Body of Christ. What more fitting time to celebrate the Body of Christ physically entering the world than at the celebration of the founding of a church, the Body of Christ on earth?
Likewise Palm Sunday is a fitting setting to celebrate the Annunciation. Think about that next week when we're celebrating Palm Sunday. We'll process with Jesus into Jerusalem where He will bequeath to His Church the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, be betrayed by friends, rejected by the Church, judged by the State, and abandoned by God for us and our salvation. Today we celebrate Him taking the first steps, baby steps as it were, on that journey toward the making of that last will and testament.
The journey toward Communion begins with the Annunciation. Today is where Word and Sacrament meet. Today is when the eternal Word of God takes on flesh and dwells among us. The Collect we prayed dates to 600 AD. The funny thing is this isn't a Collect specially appointed for the festival of the Annunciation. It is Post-Communion Collect (Reed, 556). A Collect the Church of the 7th century normally prayed after Communion.
Why did the 7th century church use it for Annunciation? Because Communion is all here. Before Jesus can give us His body and blood at this altar He first had to take on flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Before we commune, share, partake, of the body and blood of our God, our God has to take on flesh and blood. However, apart from His Passion and cross we could not be worthy to partake of God at all. Remember in Communion He commands us to take eat of His body given for us and to take drink of His blood shed for us. He gave His body to pay for our sins; He shed His blood to cover them. He makes us unworthy people worthy to receive His body and blood for strength, for health, for life.
The Passion, the cross, the resurrection are all referenced in the Collect the early church used after Communion and for the Annunciation because all three are in both. The Annunciation marks the beginning and the Holy Communion marks where Jesus wills for it all to end: with His Body and Blood, born of Mary, strengthening and preserving you in the true faith to life everlasting.
The Annunciation is a big day that gets past by because Christmas seems incongruous with Lent. It's not incongruous but complimentary. Did you know that up until first half of the 18th century the civil New Year in England began on the religious holiday of the Annunciation March 25 (Origins of the Liturgical Year, Talley, 80)? It is unclear whether the thinking really was that it was the incarnation of Jesus that made all things new and so it was a fitting time to begin a New Year, but whether you regard it as New Year's festival, a Christmas feast, or an interruption of Lent, celebrate it as the beginning of something too wonderful to miss. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Annunciation of our Lord (20120325); Luke 1: 26-38