Today, as everyone ought to know, is Good Friday. But many may not realize that it is also the Feast of the Annunciation. That is, today is not only the memorial of Christ’s death, but also of His conception.
This isn’t as much of a coincidence as you might think. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I have read that the dating of the Feast of the Annunciation was based on the date of Good Friday: that very early on there was a tradition that Good Friday had happened on March the 25th of that year. As there was also a Hebrew tradition that a great man died on the same day he was conceived, March the 25th was also assigned as the date for that feast. Then, on the principle of conception plus nine months equals birth, the feast of Christmas was dated to December 25th (it was not, as is often claimed, made to coincide with the pagan feast of Sol Invictus).
That means that, according to ancient tradition, this year’s Good Friday is an exact anniversary of the Crucifixion. Roughly one-thousand, nine-hundred, and eighty six years to the day from that one day and hour when Christ died for our sins.
Now, whether or not that is strictly accurate is interesting, but not really the point. If someone proved that Jesus could not have been crucified on March 25th, AD 30, because Pontius Pilate was on vacation in Cyprus that year, it wouldn’t make the least difference. The point isn’t what specific day or hour or year Jesus died, but that He died on a specific day, at a specific hour, in a specific year, within a fairly narrow stretch of time (AD 26-36, the years of Pilate’s governorship, being the limit). He didn’t die in some nebulous ‘long time ago,’ as some misguided modern people believe, but on a specific historical date that is linked, however distantly, with today. That is, the crucifixion and death of Jesus is a historical event; not a legendary or mythological one. The sun has risen and set a certain number of times since then. You could even, in principle, set a clock to count the number of hours and minutes and seconds since that day.
I remember in an interview with the BBC, Evelyn Waugh made a similar point about St. Helena: that whether the piece of wood she found and claimed as the True Cross really was the True Cross is open to dispute. The important thing, however, is the emphasis in Christian faith that, somewhere, there is or was an actual piece of wood, measuring a certain number of inches and weighing a certain amount, with a certain grain and certain markings upon it, from which the Son of God had hung and upon which He had died. The crucifixion isn’t a metaphor and it isn’t a myth: it’s a real, historical event. One day in the life of real men and women.
The Christian faith is not about legends or myths, but history. The whole system turns around these few days in the early years of the Roman Empire, during which the Son of God, who was one with the Father, died, was buried, and rose again to save men from our sins. These miraculous and world-changing events really happened on a certain day that was part of the great system of days of which this is one. The same continuous motion of the Earth that was occurring then is still going on. There are trees that grew then and are still growing now.
It is this immediacy; this sense of tangible reality that I think is vital for Christians to grasp and maintain. We must never fall into the trap of thinking of the life of Jesus as somehow more dubious or less real than, say, the life of George Washington, or even our own lives. We must remember constantly that these things really did happen in this same world in which we live and work and play and do everything else. Outside, we see the same sun that was put out when Christ died, and we breathe the same air with which He breathed His last. Perhaps it all happened on this very day, almost two-thousand years ago. Perhaps hit happened on another day or another year. But it happened, and we live in the same world and the same time in which Jesus walked and taught and died and rose again. Let us never forget that staggering fact.