Ars Praedicandi: A Good Friday Homily

A Homily – Good Friday 2016
by Andrew D. Ciferni

In 2005, Good Friday fell on March 25th, which is ordinarily the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This symbolically rich concurrence is relatively rare, occurring only three times in the 20th century (1910, 1921, and 1932), and twice in the 21st century (2005 and 2016). After 2016, it will not occur again for more than a century.

But it also happened in 1609 and the great English metaphysical poet, John Donne, wrote one of his most famous poems Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day, 1609. That poem is my inspiration this evening. In the Byzantine churches, unlike the Roman Church, these nodal events of salvation history – Christ’s taking our flesh at Mary’s YES to the angel Gabriel and Christ’s Death on the Cross — are celebrated together when they fall as they do today. For us Roman Catholics, when the Annunciation falls between Palm Sunday and the Second Sunday of Easter, we simply suspend the celebration until the Monday of the second week of Easter. So we Romans have less complex feasts but perhaps lose the insight of John Donne by keeping the two together.

His lens for the poem is the Christian soul whom he says:
Feeds twice on Christ — here conceived in the Annunciation and taken away in his death.
In Christ’s taking human flesh at the Annunciation and in his death we see the nature of God: “a circle emblem is” of beginning and end (alpha and omega) touching one another.
We see a lofty cedar and see it fall.
We see the head of all life not yet alive as human person before Mary’s yes, and now dead.
Then Donne moves to Mary – “she’s in orbity”:
cloistered in Nazareth, on public display at Calvary.
At the age of fifteen promised a son; at fifty, the promised son taken away.
Gabriel gives Christ to her; Christ gives her away to John.
The Christ story is like a flat map: the farthest west touches the east.
The angel’s Ave (Hail Mary) at the start becomes Christ’s Consummatum est (it is finished).

Donne did not dream this connection up.
He knew that from ancient Christianity that the date of the Crucifixion was through to be March 25 and it was that date that determined the fixing of the date of the Annunciation.
Christ’s life was seen as a perfection in that his death fell on the date of his conception.
From this, of course, comes the perfect nine month pregnancy that gives us the date of Christmas on December 25.

By now, you are wondering where and when you assign up to get the credits for this lecture.
The credits are in our internalizing the images: our end is in our beginning.
From the moment we are conceived Mary is praying for us now and at the hour of our death.
For, if we could think of every now as the hour of our death, we would not cling to and grasp at excessive wealth, unbridled power, or an obsessive need for fame and recognition.
At the conclusion of Mass the priest says: Go and proclaim the Gospel by your lives.
This Good Friday we might better end thus:
Let us go and say YES to the deaths of every NOW that in the HOUR OF OUR DEATH
we may be able to say with Jesus and Mary YES to new and eternal life.


On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day. 1609.
by John Donne

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
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.

(This is only the first half of the poem; the second treats the Church in her devotion.)

The Rev. Andrew Ciferni, O.Praem. is a member of the Norbertine community at Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, PA and director of the Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.


  1. Someone forwarded me a copy of this yesterday. I appreciated the topology image (a potent one for me as my research uses this) the flat map that nevertheless touches at its far sides, but truly appreciated the linking of these two feasts, one seemingly drowned out by the other.

  2. We used Donne’s “Riding Westward” at our service today. Donne of course loves antithesis and paradox. And he loves circular imagery to proclaim a perfect, infinite God Who resolves all antitheses.

    There are lots of analogies between these two poems.

    I’m reading Karl Rahner’s essay on Easter. He see the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as moments in a single event–none can be understood apart from the other.

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