AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” written by Edward Pola and George Wyle and first recorded in 1963 by Andy Williams, is a Christmas song that brings delight. But much as the song is delightful, it’s not quite true theologically. The truly most wonderful time of the year in Christian tradition was Saturday, March 25, and it involves Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Gabriel, Mary, the Cross, and even Frodo Baggins the hobbit.
Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, but the most wonderful time of the year is in the spring, when Christians celebrate the dramatic completion of the earthly life of that child in the crib. It is, as the Apostle Paul said, scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but the first Christians preached that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified and, by that action, had become the true sacrifice that reconciled the human race to God and opened the gates of heaven. The proof that this sacrifice was effective came in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, a day we know in the English-speaking world as Easter, but which in most languages is titled the equivalent of “Passover,” for it is the day when Jesus passed over from death to new and everlasting life.
The day on which he died became known as Good Friday. Though some early Christians in Asia Minor tended to celebrate the Resurrection on the date of the Jewish feast of Passover, almost all Christians eventually decided that it was important to celebrate yearly on a Sunday, for even in New Testament times the weekly day of worship for Christians had moved from Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) to Sunday (what they called “the day of the Lord”). Thus, Easter has long been a “movable feast,” celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, no matter what day of the year it falls upon.
Though in 2023 Good Friday falls on April 7, it happens occasionally to fall on March 25, which is also the traditional date to celebrate the Annunciation, the celebration of the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary to inform her that she would bear the chosen savior of the world and, subsequent to her assent (“Let it be done unto me according to thy word”), her miraculous pregnancy. The last time Good Friday fell on March 25 and thus the Annunciation was 2016. We won’t see it again, for the next time these two coincide will be 2157.
But whether Good Friday coincides with the Annunciation on the calendar in any given year, the connection drawn between the two in Christian tradition is part of what makes it truly the most wonderful day of the year. For the tradition that March 25 was the day of both goes back all the way to at least 240 A.D. in a treatise called “De Pascha Computus,” a computation of when Easter would happen. As the old Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “All Christian antiquity (against all astronomical possibility) recognized the 25th of March as the actual day of Our Lord’s death.” No doubt the reason for this identification was the Jewish tradition that Abraham’s binding of Isaac took place on that day.
The “Computus” argued both that the Incarnation of God the Son (and thus the Annunciation) must have been on the same day of the year as the crucifixion and that this must also have been the same day of the year as the creation of Adam.
While even the Catholic Encyclopeida calls these “fanciful calculations,” their poetic and theological logic is clear: the creation of the first Adam and the creation of the new Adam must have coincided. So too must Christ’s life have been a complete whole—dying on the same day thirty-three years after he was born. God’s work is always complete and always fits together perfectly.
Such thinking kept on developing in medieval thinkers such that the most wonderful day of the year kept having more and more events attached to it. This way of thinking perhaps reached its zenith with the account of The Golden Legend, the 13th-century collection of saints’ lives by Jacobus de Voragine, an archbishop of Genoa. His account of the Annunciation puts Adam, Gabriel, and the Cross together with a great many other events years apart that should be dated to March 25:
“This blessed Annunciation happened the twenty-fifth day of the month of March, on which day happened also, as well tofore as after, these things that hereafter be named. On that same day Adam, the first man, was created and fell into original sin by inobedience, and was put out of paradise terrestrial. After, the angel showed the conception of our Lord to the glorious Virgin Mary. Also that same day of the month Cain slew Abel his brother. Also Melchisedech made offering to God of bread and wine in the presence of Abraham. Also on the same day Abraham offered Isaac his son. That same day Saint John Baptist was beheaded, and Saint Peter was that day delivered out of prison, and Saint James the more, that day beheaded of Herod. And our Lord Jesu Christ was on that day crucified, wherefore that is a day of great reverence.”
Given the logic inherent in this thinking, it is no wonder that most of the Christian nations adopted March 25 as their official New Year. Anglo-Saxon England was an exception in that they celebrated the New Year on Christmas—December 25—but they eventually came around to celebrating the New Year on March 25 like all the other European nations.
Interestingly enough, it was the Gregorian Calendar, which began to be used by the Catholic Church in 1582, that moved New Year back to January 1 (the date Julius Caesar had selected on his calendar). Given that non-Catholic European nations were slow to accept this papist revision to the calendar, Protestants and Orthodox both kept the medieval tradition a lot longer than the Catholic nations did. England only changed their New Year’s Day from March 25 to January 1 in 1752, while Russia did not do so until (alas) 1918.
But there have always been partisans for the old tradition even in modern times. The most famous was J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings. In that work telling an alternative history of our earth, the destruction of the ring of power by which the evil Sauron’s power is destroyed after the long and arduous quest of the two hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee is—you guessed it—March 25. Not only that, but the birth of Samwise Gamgee’s daughter, after the catastrophic events of the story, is also March 25. It is no surprise that Tolkien Reading Day is also on March 25.
What’s the significance of all this? Again, it’s clear that in all of this thinking, it is the glory of God to draw straight with crooked lines and to bring all of the messiness of this world into one coherent whole, no matter how difficult it seems along the way. What God has begun with Adam, what God foreshadowed with Abraham and Isaac, and what he brought to completion in the whole life, from beginning to end—to beginning!—of Jesus Christ ultimately makes a great deal of sense even if it remains foolishness and scandal to much of the world.
Kaitlyn Facista, a Tolkien fan, has argued at her blog, Tea With Tolkien, that The Lord of the Rings, with its March 25 timing, gives us an echo of the Christian faith that inspired Tolkien, a life-long devout Catholic, with its depiction of the little Frodo who is willing to lose his home in order to save it. His tale is, like the Christian story, “a piercing juxtaposition of life and death, light against darkness, Eucatastrophe. Through Adam, death is brought into the world, and through Christ, life is restored; through Christ’s own submission to death is death itself defeated.”
With apologies to Andy Williams, the most wonderful time of the year is now. The lyrics he sang told us “Be of good cheer.” That Christmastide greeting finds its origin and its fulfillment in all the events that are remembered on March 25. As Easter approaches, we can remember the intertwined mysteries of our creation, our fall, and the even more glorious redemption of the human race, all of which give hope and the fullness of good cheer.