When Good Friday falls on March 25, an ancient Christian intuition about God’s initiative in history — creation, incarnation and redemption — is given unique expression. And how often does this happen? Rarely. It happened in 1921, 1932, 2005 and now 2016. And it won’t happen again this century.
It is of further interest that the first Holy Week in the life of John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, born May 1920) was 1921, with its March 25 Good Friday — as was his last in 2005, when the whole world accompanied him in his final days. Now the same Holy Week calendar that accompanied the great “Pope of Mercy” at the beginning and end of his life returns for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. What do we learn from these extraordinary dates?
We begin by appreciating anew the importance of March 25, the most important day in history, the singular day of the Christian imagination. An ancient tradition of Christian piety assigns to March 25 the divine work of creation, incarnation and redemption. The Incarnation takes place liturgically on March 25, the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord Jesus. But not because it is nine months before Christmas, Dec. 25, as many think. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, explained that it was March 25 that was primary — and Dec. 25 secondary.
“Astonishingly, the starting point for dating the birth of Christ was March 25th,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger. “The decisive factor was the connection of creation and cross, of creation and Christ’s conception. These dates brought the cosmos into the picture.”
What is the connection between creation, cross and Christ’s conception?
“Jewish tradition gave the date of March 25 to Abraham’s sacrifice,” explained Cardinal Ratzinger. “This day was also regarded as the day of creation, the day when God’s word decreed: ‘Let there be light.’ It was also considered, very early on, as the day of Christ’s death and eventually as the day of his conception. The mysterious words in Revelation 13:8 about the ‘Lamb slain from the beginning of the world’ could also perhaps be interpreted in the same way. … These cosmic images enabled Christians to see, in an unprecedented way, the world-embracing meaning of Christ.”
So drawing upon March 25 as the traditional Jewish date of creation and Abraham’s sacrifice, the first Good Friday — which varies by date, according to the lunar cycle — was believed by early Christians to be March 25. From that intuition, the same date was assigned to the Incarnation — the Solemnity of the Annunciation. That is why, in the Roman Martyrology, both the Annunciation and the feast of the Good Thief are assigned to March 25. Feast days for saints are usually assigned on the day of death, the day of the Good Thief’s crucifixion. Because that is the solemn feast of the Annunciation, the Good Thief’s feast day is never observed — one might say that it is “stolen” from him every year. But it expresses liturgically that March 25 is the date of both the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, thereby bringing together in a unique way the merciful redemption and its Marian dimension.
The connection of mercy, Mary and the redemption was underscored in an almost incredible fashion by the death of John Paul in 2005. An indelible image of that final Holy Week was the dying Pope watching the Via Crucis by television in his chapel, his own broken body embracing the cross.
John Paul died at 9:37pm on Saturday, April 2. As he lay dying that evening, his longtime secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, offered Mass in the Holy Father’s room. The dying Pope would receive holy Communion — a drop of the Precious Blood — for the final time at that Mass. It being Saturday night, the Mass celebrated was that of Divine Mercy Sunday, the feast having already begun with the praying of vespers earlier that evening. So John Paul died on the feast of Divine Mercy.
Even more remarkable was that John Paul did not die on the Sunday itself, but on the Saturday. It was the first Saturday of the month, which is traditionally a day dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Because Divine Mercy Sunday falls in the Octave of Easter, it is not possible for any Marian feasts to fall in that period. But a First Saturday can occur, and given that John Paul was Totus Tuus dedicated to Mary, it was even more fitting that he die on a Marian day.
Furthermore, the First Saturday devotion in honor of the Blessed Mother was a fruit of the apparitions at Fatima. And the unbreakable bond between John Paul and Fatima was established on May 13, 1981, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, when the Holy Father miraculously survived the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square.
Consider this: To die on a First Saturday and the feast of Divine Mercy means dying within a window of about six hours. Combined with a March 25 Good Friday, those six hours occur only twice in the entire 21st century: the year of St. John Paul’s death and now in the Jubilee of Mercy. Astonishing!
St. Faustina — canonized by John Paul as the first saint of the third millennium — promoted the Novena of Divine Mercy, beginning on Good Friday and concluding on Divine Mercy Sunday. When Good Friday is March 25, the novena takes on a Marian dimension, including a First Saturday. The joyful news of the Annunciation leads to Mary’s Magnificat, wherein she praises God, who has shown “his mercy from generation to generation.” The whole of the history of salvation — symbolized by March 25 — is summed up in those words, the unfolding of Divine Mercy in every generation.
“We have every right to believe that our generation, too, was included in the words of the Mother of God when she glorified that mercy shared in ‘from generation to generation’ by those who allow themselves to be guided by the fear of God,” wrote John Paul in his encyclical on the mercy of God. “The words of Mary’s Magnificat have a prophetic content that concerns not only the past of Israel, but also the whole future of the People of God on earth. In fact, all of us now living on earth are the generation that is aware of the approach of the third millennium and that profoundly feels the change that is occurring in history.”
If the history of our time is marked by the particular revelation of God’s mercy to a world in special need of it, then these days of the Jubilee of Mercy — echoing the transitus of the great herald of mercy, St. John Paul — write that into the very calendar itself.