“Yes” to Life Even in the Midst of Death

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the annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Fr. Andrew Ciferni will be preaching today at St. Norbert’s College. He notes the rare concurrence that today, March 25th, is Good Friday and the day on which we ordinarily  observe the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Ciferni observes that, after 2016, the Annunciation and Good Friday will not fall on the same day for more than a century. It happened in 1609, and inspired the poet John Donne to write Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day.

Here’s the poem:

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen

At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;

At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

And here is Fr. Ciferni’s reflection on the poem:

Donne’s lens for the poem is the Christian soul who, he says, eats twice, Christ conceived in the Annunciation and Christ taken away in his death.

In Christ’s taking human flesh at the Annunciation and in Christ’s surrendering human flesh on the cross we see the nature of God; their beginning and end meet. We see the lofty cedar rise and we see it fall. We see the source of all life unborn, and now dead.

Then Donne moves to Mary, cloistered in Nazareth, on public display at Calvary. At the age of fifteen she is promised a son; at fifty, the promised son is taken away. Gabriel gives Christ to her; Christ gives her away to John. Thus, the Christ story is like a flat map: the farthest west touches the east. The angel’s Ave (Hail Mary) becomes Christ’s Consummarum est (It is finished).

Donne did not conjure this connection. He knew that from the earliest days of the Church March 25 was understood as the date of the Crucifixion, and it was that date that determined the date of the Annunciation. The fullness of Christ is mirrored even in the fullness of the cycle of his life: his death comes on the day of his conception.

Our end is in our beginning. From the moment we are conceived Mary is praying for us. She prays for us then. She prays for us now, and at the hour of our death.

We stand today before the hour of Christ’s death. And we are bidden to remember our own hour, an hour we can not know. We cannot know the hour, but we can live as though every hour might be the hour, the hour of our death. Then we begin to live as those who know what does and does not matter. We begin to put away our grasping after riches, after power, after the need for fame and recognition. We begin to live as those who, like Mary, and the Son she bore and raised, say, “Yes,” yes to God, and yes to life, even in the midst of death.