by Dominic Bulger
Many of us have a favorite day of the year. Christmas. Thanksgiving. Our own birthday. The last day of school. Leap day (when it happens). Let me add a new horse to the race for the best day of the year: March 25th.
Many Christians celebrate the Annunciation of the Lord on this day, and for years that was my only association with it. As it turns out, some combination of historical circumstances, fate, and tradition has placed a great deal of weight on this date, and the reason the Annunciation has been celebrated then is no mere coincidence but a participation in an older tradition preceding even the birth of Christ.
So, I submit to you a list of ways in which March 25th is significant:
• According to Hebrew (and later, Christian) tradition, March 25th is the date of Creation. Some traditions also place the fall of Lucifer, the fall of Adam and Eve, the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea, and the Binding of Isaac on March 25th.
• Furthermore, many Christian traditions celebrate the Annunciation on March 25th and historically maintained that the Crucifixion also took place on March 25th.
• It’s the birthday of American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor.
• It’s the feast of Dismas, the good thief (which makes perfect sense if you’re in the tradition of saying that the Crucifixion took place on March 25th).
• March 25th is the day that the One Ring was cast into Mt. Doom in The Lord of the Rings (and, as of 2003, is celebrated internationally as Tolkien Reading Day).
• In a manner reminiscent of Charlemagne’s Christmas Day crowning in 800, Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots on March 25th, 1306.
• On March 25th, 1300 (which was Maundy Thursday that year), Dante the Pilgrim began his fictional journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (and, as of 2020, is celebrated as Dante Day–Dantedì–an Italian national holiday).
• March 25th marked the beginning of the Council of Pisa in 1409, which was a sadly failed (and somewhat controversial) attempt to heal the Great Schism.
• March 25th of last year Beverly Cleary died (beloved American children’s author of the Ramona series and The Mouse and the Motorcycle).
• It’s Greek Independence Day.
There’s a modern inclination in us which would tend to look at this list with a fair bit of skepticism. Are you really going to claim that all these events of such historic significance just so happened to take place on the same day? We’re willing enough to believe the historical coincidences such as O’Connor’s birth and Cleary’s death (after all, they had to have been born and died on some day, and this one is statistically as likely as any other). But doesn’t it seem like just a bit much to claim that things really lined up as perfectly as this? The part of us that has been trained in the tradition of historical criticism, that wants to say, “Well, most scholars today think Jesus was actually born between 4 and 6 B.C.,” may object to such a wealth of poetic coherence. But history is as much a poetic endeavor as it is a critical one. The narrative of history is not merely a cold, objective account of what has happened but an articulation of and participation in our common human story, one rich with meaning and symbolism. This is not to say that the objective, critical side to history is wrong and that the poetic is right, but that the critical is incomplete without the poetic. The way in which we articulate what has happened is just as important as understanding the bare facts—perhaps even more so.
The part of us that longs for coherence is happy to celebrate these things all together, almost as if it couldn’t have been another way. How could it in any way be appropriate to argue that the Incarnation did not in fact take place on the anniversary not only of the Creation, but also of the Fall? Could any day be more fitting for the New Adam to take on human form than on the anniversary of the “happy fault” which inspired such a deed? The part of us that cringes when Good Friday is warm and sunny while the following Sunday is gray and rainy admits that, yes of course, the Crucifixion had to have happened on the anniversary of its type in the Old Testament, the binding of Isaac. The day on which the Angel of God stayed the hand of Abraham has been transformed into the day when God Himself stayed the hand of Death, flipping it upside down and turning it into the path to life.
The move of writers like Tolkien and Dante to place fictional moments of narrative significance on March 25th is a conscious decision to enter into and develop this tradition. Tolkien’s decision to place the destruction of the One Ring on this date is, in a sense, to read history through his story and to let his story be read through the history of the Creation, Fall, Incarnation, and Crucifixion. Dante’s decision to begin his fictional journey on March 25th, Maundy Thursday, 1300, is a similar move of reading his own fictional journey into history and allowing his Comedy to be read by that history: Dante parallels Christ’s journey not merely in place, but in time as well. The poet could not have chosen a more appropriate day on which to begin.
It’s no happenstance that Greek Independence falls on this day. Alexander Ypsilantis, leader of the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire, intentionally decided to begin the revolution on March 25th, blurring the lines between poetry and history. (Alexander’s younger brother, Demetrios, also played a prominent role in the revolution—so prominent, in fact, that the residents of a newly-founded town in the state of Michigan decided to name themselves after him, forever condemning themselves both to mispronunciation and misspelling, only later to rise to fame at the hands of Sufjan Stevens.) As things actually played out, the plots that Ypsilantis had planned for March 25th were discovered by Ottoman authorities, so the revolution was forced to start in late February. Even so, Bishop Germanos of Patras raised the flag of independence on March 25th, along with the cry of “Freedom or Death.” The skirmishes happening throughout late February and early March were thus characterized as pre-revolutionary activities, a mere prelude to the revolution. Ask a Greek and he’ll tell you that the real revolution began, as planned, on March 25th, and is celebrated accordingly.
One can see in Alexander Ypsilantis an understanding of himself and his people as actually participating in the poetry of salvation history. In fighting for their freedom, they are not only remembering the actions of the Hebrews fleeing through the Red Sea from their oppressors—they are actually in the sea with the Hebrews, just as Christ is with the Greeks (and us, too) in his Incarnation and his victory over death. Might Robert the Bruce have been thinking along similar lines when he chose March 25th as his coronation day? Might the bishops calling the Council of Pisa have been doing the same?
When it comes down to it, the question “but did this all really happen on that day?” misses the point. The Greek word “symbol” literally means “to throw together.” On March 25th, these otherwise apparently disparate events are “thrown together” in such a way that they inform each other and take on each other’s meaning. They all participate in the glory of each. The whole of salvation history can be told through events celebrated on this day. Historical actors and authors of fiction throw themselves together—“symbolize” themselves, if you will, into the holy mess of history that is March 25th. One thinks of Flannery O’Connor’s comment on the “regional writer” (perhaps applicable as well both to the historical actor and to the writer of liturgical calendrics): “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”
Perhaps the writer could start looking to O’Connor’s own birthday.
Dominic Bulger is a teacher and musician living in St. Paul, MN. He enjoys dinner parties, singing with friends, learning musical instruments both new and old, and celebrating Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (along with a couple other things).
Header Image: “The Annunciation,” John William Waterhouse (detail), oil on canvas, 1914 (public domain)