Salve juste dies quae vulnera nostra coerces! Angelus est missus, est passus in cruce Christus….
The above lines are quoted by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend, a compendium of the lives of the saints composed around 1260 and laid out according to the church calendar. Later authors added further entries but this quotation is from the original text for the Feast of the Annunciation.
The Feast of the Annunciation is on 25th March, exactly nine months before Christmas Day. The feast celebrates the Incarnation – when Jesus became flesh in the womb of his mother Mary. But there is more to this date than meets the eye.
Even before St Augustine, bishop of Hippo from 395 to 430, there was a strong tradition that 25th of March was the first day of Creation, it was the day that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, it was the day on which Christ was conceived and it was the day of Christ’s crucifixion. However the most worrying aspect of 25th of March was the belief that it was very likely to be the day of Christ’s return – Doomsday!
Thus the date held enormous importance for the faithful during the medieval period, and this importance was not just confined to the common people. Even scholars and educated clerics adhered to the same beliefs about 25th March. Indeed the same beliefs survived in the folklore of parts of west Kerry into the early twentieth century.
The best example in medieval Irish art of the importance of the conjunction of Annunciation and Good Friday as a precursor of Doomsday is found on the crozier of Bishop Cornelius O’Dea of Limerick. According to the date given on the inscription, this crozier was made by an Irish craftsman, Thomas O’Carryd, in 1418. What is intriguing is that Good Friday fell on 25th March in that year. It suggests that Bishop O’Dea was anxious about the immanence of the end of the world (an idea supported by another inscription on his mitre). The conjunction of Annunciation and Good Friday occurred at least three times during O’Dea’s lifetime, which suggests that the prospect of Christ’s immediate return posed a dilemma for the bishop who had maintained a mistress when he was a younger cleric, against the strictures on clerical celibacy. With this unknown woman he had at least three sons, two of whom were themselves clerics, one of whom became Bishop of Ossory (Kilkenny) when his daddy was Bishop of Limerick.
So there you have it. The world will end when Good Friday falls on 25th March (the feast of the Annunciation)…..which it does today! But there’s a snag. In 1418 Bishop O’Dea and the whole of western Europe used the ancient Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar. However Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new, corrected calendar in October 1582. Which begs the question, does heaven run on the Julian calendar, or the Gregorian one?
The best advice comes from the Gospel of Matthew, 25:13 – ‘Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour.’ (Rheims-Douai Bible, 1582): But perhaps Bishop O’Dea had the last word in 1418. On his jewelled mitre appears this text from the Divine Office: Hoc signum crucis erat in caelo, cum dominum ad judicandum venerit. ‘This sign of the cross will appear in the heavens when the Lord shall come to judge.’ Keep looking…..