It always feels a bit odd to celebrate great feasts during Lent, and none more so than the feast of the Annunciation — celebrating the very beginning of Jesus’ life on earth — while veiled in the purple of Passiontide.
But this day has always looked forward to the Cross. The name Gabriel tells Mary to give the child means ’The Lord saves’, and we know that his mission to save his people will be completed on the Cross. St Ephraim taught that 25th March in the year of the Annunciation coincided with the 10th day of the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. This was the day that each Israelite household selected the lamb to be sacrificed at the Passover: ‘Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.’ (Exodus 12:3). On this day when Christ became man, already he was marked out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. St Ephraim writes:
Moses shut up a lamb in the month Nisan on the tenth day;
a type this of the Son that came into the womb
and shut himself up therein on the tenth day.
He came forth from the womb in this month
in which the sun gives longer light.
But that’s not the only link between this date and the Cross. In the Roman Martyrology (the book that lists all of the saints the Church remembers around the world for each day of the year) one entry for tomorrow reads:
The commemoration of the good thief, who on the cross confessed Christ, and thus deserved to hear him say, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise.’
It was commonly held in the ancient world that important people lived an exact number of years, and so it was thought by some that Christ died on the 25th March, an idea remembered now only because it is also the day on which the good thief died. Though it is unlikely that this was actually the case (3rd April is a better candidate for the first Good Friday), the two days remain linked nonetheless. When Good Friday falls on 25th March, we postpone our celebrations of the Annunciation until after Easter, but in the Eastern Churches, the two are combined into a single celebration with special solemnity. This happened in 2005 and 2016, but now won’t happen again in our lifetimes — the next occurrence will be in 2157.
The shadow of the Cross fell on Christ from the first moments of his conception. He was able to suffer death because he had first become man. He conquered death because, though true man, he was also truly God. The Annunciation celebrates this coming together of God and man, and, as we enter Holy Week, we are shown what that means for us. Christ invites us to let the shadow of the Cross fall on our own lives — so that we too can have our own share in the union of God and man.