This Doubtful Day

In Austria, on Palm Sunday, branches of pussy willow are used instead of palms to honour the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the parish church of Viehhofen, in Hinterglemm, I found a spray of pussy willow attached to a processional cross as part of the Christmas decorations. I am unclear about the reason for this, and a search of the internet turned up little. However, it seems a fitting nod towards the passion of Christ and serves as a reminder that events in the Christian year are interlaced in ways that are sometimes surprising.

In 1608 John Donne wrote about the coincidence of the Annunciation (25 March 1608) falling on Good Friday. (We don’t need to worry about that happening in our lifetimes, no matter how young you are, as it occurs next in the year 2157. It happened last in 2016). Donne reflected on ‘the head Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead’, the day when news of great joy lands on the remembrance of deep sorrow. News about the same person – anticipation of new life held simultaneously with the pain and suffering of that life being extinguished. In the calendar, the Church transfers the celebration of the Annunciation to another date. It is almost impossible to attend fully to both these extremities without experiencing some kind of theological breakdown.

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.

The conclusion of Donne’s poem: On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day

As a hospital chaplain there were many occasions when joy and sorrow were held in the same time. I shall never forget working in the neonatal units at Christmas, when all attention in the outer world was fixed upon a particular birth but, tragically, I was baptising and blessing lives that would not last the day. Every Christmas I think of those parents and families, for whom this date of joy in the world had become a time of painful recollection. Our annual baby remembrance service was held in early December in order to allow families a ritual of acknowledged loss, and then proceed to keep Christmas as well as possible for other children in the family.

We tend to think that Christmas should be a time when we are shielded from the harsh experiences of being human. Sadly, as the UK has witnessed, violent deaths have taken place over the festivities. Families have been devastated by loss when so much public narrative focuses on being together; reunited. Police officers speaking about these events have often said words to the effect that: ‘while this would be appalling at any time, it is particularly difficult coming at Christmas’. The remembrance of families will forever be made in a context of public joy and celebration.

It is the work of the Church to hold these things together. It is always both ‘our duty and our joy’. The word death is spoken in front of the family and friends of a child brought to baptism; in the joy of a wedding we are reminded it is ’till death do us part’. In a funeral we hear the language of a life to come, and resurrection. The wonderful life which Mary brings into the world is destined for abuse; mockery; humiliation; and a criminal’s execution. Donne called the coming together of joy and sorrow in 1608 ‘this doubtful day’. He knew not whether to feast or fast.

The crucifix doesn’t leave the church to make our Christmas feast more palatable. Neither is it wrapped in tinsel to pretend that suffering can be masked, so that our carols might be more joyful. Pussy willow seems a fitting decoration. A foreshadowing of the Passion that begins on Palm Sunday – but also one of the first heralds of Spring, and a reminder that in the death of winter, new life is promised.

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