The mysteries of March

March 21st, 2016

Sample liturgy for this service is included below. Click the PDF link to download.

As we prepare for Holy Week this year, there is a strange little moment that happened last in 2005 and will not happen again until 2178.

The Spirit rests on the Son in Mary’s womb on the same day the Son gives up the Spirit and rests in the tomb.

Now, the calendar can be adjusted so that this isn’t the case. And you can certainly do the careful liturgical maneuvering that would move the feast of the Annunciation until the first unimpeded day after Easter Week, but that would be to miss out on one of the strangest opportunities we have, and one that most of us won’t live to see again.

This claim also assumes that Methodists might observe the Annunciation, which doesn’t appear in our “Book of Worship” or other liturgical resources. I am fairly certain it is an unusual observance for most Protestant churches to keep this feast, which is odd given the Reformers’ continued emphasis on Mary and the entwining of her life with that of her son. I would bet that most of our congregations do not even realize that there is a feast of the Annunciation — after all, we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, with Gabriel’s pronouncement coming to Mary only a few weeks before according to our lectionary! So the fact that there is this moment, nine months before Jesus’ birth, is sadly lost for most mainline Protestants.

But this is our chance to change all that, even if only for a generation. This is an opportunity to not only press into that mystery, but to engage it in a way that is startling and electric — the Son is conceived and the Son dies, in the space of one day. This is the entirety of the mystery of the Incarnation, wrapped up into a single day. The Son, who did not take divinity something to be grasped, emptied himself to take on human form. And now this Son, who did not take divinity as something to be exploited, gives up that human form, emptying himself once more into death so that death might be undone.

The imaginative ways for pressing into this mystery are certainly endless, but there are some key pieces that can help open it up for us, especially for those who are so unused to celebrating the Annunciation. First, you have hopefully realized a key element to this strange confluence: this is the only time when the Eucharist is celebrated on Good Friday. That fact alone makes it well-worth the acknowledgment! But as one of my own worship leaders pointed out in our conversations about this day, to celebrate this all together during the Good Friday service could cause more confusion than good. For people who are either unaware of Good Friday’s solemn work, or why the Eucharist is inappropriate for the day, to then celebrate it would either be lost on them or confusing for them. However, another clergy friend is celebrating this space with a Service of Light and Shadows, literally dividing the sanctuary and the congregation, moving from Gabriel’s announcement into the gloom of the Passion in a stark and noticeable way. So it can certainly be done and done well!

There are some wonderful liturgical cues that can help shape this day. For instance, my own congregation will gather on the morning of March 25 for a short order of Eucharist. Coming from Maundy Thursday, the table will be bare, with only the communion vessels resting on the plain wood. The candles will be lit, the morning opened with prayer, and a song sung together with little accompaniment. We will join together in the Confiteor, that ancient confessional prayer, and then share in Christ’s peace together. We will hear the reading from Luke’s Gospel and two poetic reflections on that text, interspersed with silence. We will move into the Table together, gathering all around and lifting our bodies as Spirit comes to rest on us, and these gifts of bread and wine.

In a day and time when our imagination for mystery is so thin, this Holy Week presents us with a powerful opportunity to reengage the mystery at the center of the Christian faith. Here, in the midst of Annunciation and Crucifixion, we find a beautiful moment to draw nearer to Christ whose Spirit makes us one with him and with each other. To let this time pass us by would be to miss out on a powerful possibility for teaching, but also for a profound moment to experience some of the best symbols and stories, and in such a condensed space. Don’t let this opportunity pass by, not when we might press ourselves deeply into the great, salvific space between virgin womb and virgin tomb.

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