So on this Good Friday the Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken here in Kent about the desirability of fixing the date of Easter, which currently can fall on any date over about a five week period. It is the first Sunday following the full moon (the paschal full moon) occurring after the spring equinox (when the length of the day finally exceeds the length of the night).
This year Easter is particularly early, with Good Friday on 25 March. Only twice in the twenty-first century will Good Friday have fallen on 25 March: 2005 and this year, 2016. March 25th is ordinarily the Feast of the Annunciation, the commemoration of the visit by the Angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her she is expecting a child (so exactly nine months before Christmas Day). After 2016, it will not occur again for more than a century.
The great English poet John Donne wrote about an occasion in his lifetime when Good Friday and the Annunciation coincided in 1608 in the poem reproduced in full below. He muses on the strangeness of the very start of Christ’s earthly existence coinciding with the date of his death: “this doubtful day / Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away.” Should we celebrate or should we fast in penitence?
In earlier centuries it was thought particularly appropriate that sometimes Good Friday should fall on the same day that the Angel announced that Mary was to give birth to Jesus. This was because of the sense of completeness it pointed to: the beginning of the work of God’s redemption being completed at the same point, marked on the same day. Some medieval theologians thought that 25th March for this reason was the actual anniversary of the Crucifixion, so it was particularly special when Good Friday was on that date.
Of course, if the date of Easter were ever fixed (and as has been noted there have been discussions about this for at least 1000 years so don’t hold your breath!) then this interesting and rare double event would never happen again in Christian history; Easter would certainly be fixed in the middle of the current period in which it occurs, probably the second Sunday in April. While undoubtedly the weather might be better (though no one can complain about Good Friday, today) the world might be a very slightly less interesting place if everything were aligned to our practical convenience, and some ancient symbolism lost.
Anyway, the John Donne poem:
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.
How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix’d Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
—Because it strays not far—doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes ; He shall come, He is gone ;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.