Recently I got the announcement of a weekly Way of the Cross in Lent 2020. Friday might be the most convenient choice for the weekday, but in our urban context – where many people work downtown from Monday morning to Friday noon and leave the city afterwards – it makes sense to chose another day, in this case Wednesday. So far so good.
In 2020 one of the Lenten Wednesdays is March 25: Solemnity of Annunciation. I am quite sure that the people who prepared the weekly Way of the Cross did not even realize the coincidence, but it caught my attention as a liturgist. The Second Vatican Council and the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy are quite clear on the relation between the sacred liturgy (to which the calendar belongs) and acts of popular devotion (like the Way of the Cross):
- “[Popular devotions] should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 13)
- “[Any] form of competition with or opposition to the liturgical actions, where such exists, must […] be resolved. Thus, precedence must always be given to Sunday, Solemnities, and to the liturgical seasons and days.” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy 13)
I see good reasons to celebrate the Way of the Cross even on March 25: The Solemnity of Annunciation is not very popular (at least here where I live), therefore some people might be confused why the weekly Via Crucis is canceled on one of the Lenten Wednesdays. One must be happy about anyone who is willing to join the Via Crucis every Lenten week, therefore one should provide a schedule that is as simple as possible. The Passion of Christ is an aspect of Christ’s incarnation whose beginning is celebrated on March 25, therefore there is no need to seperate both from each other.
But on the other hand the Solemnity of Annunciation is a joyous day where the Church celebrates that God embraces humankind and dignifies us to exist in grace without fear. The liturgy of the day avoids all Lenten features: white vestments instead of Lenten violet, the Gloria is sung in the Mass, the entire orders of Mass and Office follow the solemnity without Lenten readings, hymns, or prayers. Only the Halleluja is omitted between Ash Wednesday and Easter Vigil, even on solemnities.
In a certain contrast to this central aspect of Christian joy, “[p]opular piety concentrates on the mysteries of Christ’s humanity, and during Lent the faithful pay close attention to the Passion and Death of Our Lord” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy 124), they “contemplate the crucified Saviour, they sense more easily the great suffering which Jesus, the Holy and Innocent One, suffered for the salvation of mankind. They understand his love and the effectiveness of his redemptive sacrifice.” (127)
The Via Crucis demonstrates the tragedy of human suffering in all obviousness, and it easily touches people emotionally (and hopefully makes them compassionate with all who suffer and with everything that suffers). The mystery of Annunciation is less visible. Lc 1:26–38 tells a story of seclusion, intimacy, confidence, and courage. It needs further introduction and deeper contemplation (which might be one of the reasons why it has never become the most popular of the Christian holidays). Therefore mixing both—Via Crucis and Solemnity of Annunciaton—will always create a sort of “competition”, and I predict that the Via Crucis will always win. And that is exactly what the Council and the Directory wanted to avoid.
Strictly speaking, neither the Council nor the Directory prohibit the Way of the Cross on March 25 explicitely, but I would argue that they give enough well-grounded hints why the Solemnity of Annunciation should not compete with any acts of popular Lenten piety on the same day.