Friday, March 25, 2011

Annunciation and the Call to Life-in-Death

In both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions, March 25th marks a special event in the life of Jesus Christ: His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This event is also known as the Annunciation, when according to the Gospel of St. Luke, the Archangel Gabriel came to the Virgin and announced, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” (Luke 1:30-31)

Mary’s response to this announcement is a familiar and beloved one: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) According to Church tradition, her words of acceptance were what allowed God’s Word to enter and initiate within her the human conception of her Son.

Less well known is why March 25th is the date of the Annunciation. Some scholars argue that Christian chose the pagan feast of Sol Invictus (“the Invincible Sun”) on December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus. As a result, the feast of Jesus’ conception was established nine months earlier on—you guessed it—March 25th.

This line of argumentation has recently been replaced by a more interesting explanation. Scholars now suggest that some early Christians believed that Jesus actually died on March 25th. And because they ascribed to Him the ancient Jewish piety that a prophet died on the same day as he was conceived, they also established the date for His conception. While the celebration of Jesus’ death later shifted, becoming dependent on the lunar cycle, the Annunciation remained fixed, with Christmas nine months later.

Whether this explanation is ultimately factual, I neither know nor care; entertaining its possibility does, however, offer a rich opportunity for reflection. If Jesus did die on the same day as He was conceived, then from the moment of His conception, He was destined to die. Further, if Jesus is the pattern after which every human being is supposed to be made, then you and I are also born to die, as He was.

This is more than just to say that one day, all of us are going to die. The coincidence of Jesus’ conception and His death suggest to that the purpose of our existence is to die, not just “in the end,” but every day, moment by moment. Just as Jesus’ ultimate death coincided with His conception, every instant of my life must also coincide with a death—an offering of myself for others without concern for my own welfare.

Frankly, the world around us takes the opposite tack. We are born, are taught to survive, are filled with knowledge and skills, find jobs and careers, acquire wealth and material possessions, invest, save money for day—all so that we can manage our destinies, if not completely then a little more completely than before.

Beneath that imperative to manage and control is a more primeval impulse: the fear of death, over which we have no control. The need to survive, to cheat death or put it off for as long as possible is the ultimate driving force behind almost every aspect of individual, social, economic and political life in this world.

The Annunciation, linked with the Cross, is a flat out rejection of this Darwinian way of thinking. When I affirm that my life is a series of deaths to self, I choose something other than “survival of the fittest” and “kill or be killed.” Rather, I make choices as a consumer, as a parent, as a spouse, as a citizen, as a member of the Church, that benefit someone other than myself. I am willing to take cuts, live with less, deprive myself of comforts and conveniences, so that other individuals, communities, species, the world outside myself—might survive and thrive. It’s counterintuitive and revolutionary.

Am I destroyed when I make the decision to make my life choices a series of little deaths? By no means. After all, if I die to myself so that you might live, and you die to yourself so that I might live, we both end up, not just alive, but enriched by one another’s lives. And even if you refuse to respond in kind to my act of self-sacrifice, I can still choose to die in imitation of Jesus’ own self-emptying death for me and the entire human race, and in doing so, I find myself resurrected and transformed by a His resurrection.

The Annunciation, then, is a call to death, but not destruction. It is a challenge to relinquish fear, to reject self-interest, to demonstrate the courage and the conviction of the Virgin Mary’s simple acceptance of Gabriel’s announcement, trusting like her that though the water may come up over our heads, God will not allow us to be drowned in our sufferings, but will lead us through into the promised land of life and joy.

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