Liturgy 0, Popular Piety 1

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.

9 comments

  1. One of the odd obsessions of the postconciliar liturgy is the idea that more than one idea can’t possibly be balanced on the same day. That idea has no basis in the history of either western or eastern liturgy.

    25 March is indeed the Annunciation. It is also still Lent; it is also the traditional day of the first Good Friday (cf. the commemoration of the Good Thief in the Martyrology). In some important regards, 25 March is an eminently fitting day to observe the venerable devotion of the Stations.

    On a more practical level, any church would be delighted to have people show up on a Wednesday in March for any reason, liturgical or devotional.

  2. A non-liturgical but more traditional culturally Catholic way to combine these would be to follow the pious exercises with a collation of festive refreshment. Filled doughuts/fritters and tea/punch?

  3. I don’t see a problem with having the via crucis on a non-fasting day. Life is full of contradictions. Someone we love dies at Christmas or Easter. We mourn. The rest of the church celebrates, and our pocket of lament is part of the witness, as well as an opportunity for all to interact. Every Mass, Lent or Holy Week or otherwise, we commemorate the Paschal Mystery in its entirety. We don’t edit out the parts that aren’t observed directly in the liturgical readings and prayers.

    People might leave the Way and wonder why families are feasting on spring salads and cakes. Those families wonder why the somber looks of the people in church. It’s an opportunity, not a moment for hand-wringing or keeping score.

  4. I would echo other commenters on the value of being able to hold two seemingly disparate realities in ones head. Rather than setting it up as a competition between liturgy and devotion, perhaps it could be considered a win-win that both could infuse each other with meaning as some have creatively suggested.

  5. In early Christian thinking, there is an immediate connection between the Annunciation (the conception of Jesus) and his death.
    Augustine (354 – 430): De Trinitate IV, 5(9) wrote: “For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried.” Surrounding this, Augustine has numerical computations of days and months and years which you can read for yourself!
    This is related to a tradition that for a person of great significance, the life of that person would be a “full” number of years – the date of death corresponding either to the date of birth or to the date of conception.
    Tertullian, about 220 AD, has a similar account (An Answer to the Jews, VIII:17): “The suffering of this extermination [the death of Jesus] was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Cæsar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April, on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even.” The eighth day before the calends (1st) of April is 25 March.
    Further evidence of the connection is that, in the Roman Martyrology, the feast of St Dismas (the “good thief”) who died on the same day as Jesus, is 25 March.
    For me, this is strong evidence that the date of the celebration of the birth of Jesus derives from this, not the other way around, and that it pre-dates the setting by Emperor Aurelian of the celebration of Sol Invictus on 25 December. It may be that Aurelian fixed that date to try to overshadow the growing Christian presence and their celebration of Christmas.
    As the poem of John Donne puts it:
    “All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
    The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
    (As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
    Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.”

  6. In the Eastern (Byzantine) Rite, whenever March 25th falls on Good Friday, both the celebration of the Crucifixion and the Annunciation are celebrated. The propers of the two services or interweaved throughout the liturgical celebrations. The same thing occurs if March 25th falls on Pascha, and the celebration is named “Kyriopascha”.

    Good Friday and the Annunciation last fell on the same day in 2016 (Gregorian Calendar) and it won’t occur again until 2157.

    However, Kyriopascha will occur again on 2035 and 2046, so many of the blogs readers could be around to celebrate those two occurrences.

    1. Devin, And not only are the two feasts interwoven on Good Friday, but the Divine Liturgy (Mass) is celebrated as well, combined with vespers (evening prayer) on that day. Of course it’s a mute point for the Roman rite since if Annunciation falls during Holy Week or Easter Week, it’s moved to the Monday after Low Sunday (Divine Mercy Sunday in the revised Roman rite).

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