Cause of our Joy - An Advent reflection
by Sr Ann Catherine o.p.
I once heard the story of a Christmastide service of Nine Lessons and Carols held in the chapel of a military base. A similar service took place every year, and, in the best traditions of the regiment, the custom was that the last lesson, the Annunciation from St Luke’s Gospel that we have just heard, was always read by the Commanding Officer. On this particular occasion, the man, who was not a habitual church-goer, began well. He had conscientiously practiced, in a way that would put many regular readers at Mass to shame; indeed, he’d taken the trouble to learn his lines. Or, at least, he’d learnt half his lines. Striding up to the lectern, he adjusted his spectacles, gazed out over the congregation and proclaimed: “And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a Virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” It was at that point, apparently, that things went a little pear-shaped. “ And the virgin’s name was” – pause, squint in puzzlement over the top of his spectacles at the Authorized Version in front of him – “Mary”.
We might smile sympathetically, or, according to temperament, deplore. On the one hand, we might say, the poor man was clearly doing his best: he may have been an unbeliever, or a half-believer, but he knew that the text he had been entrusted with was of profound significance to at least some of his hearers, and he wanted to treat it with respect and dignity for their sake. It’s easy to imagine how mortified he must have been by his stumbling, too, in front of the rank and file members of the congregation.
On the other hand, we might find in this anecdote temptation to despair: how can it be that our culture has drifted so far from its Christian moorings that a figure so very much at the heart of the establishment does not know the name of the Mother of God?
Of course, there is something appropriate about both these reactions, but I want to suggest a third. I want to suggest that the army officer in my story is, amongst other things, to be envied, precisely because of his unfamiliarity with the story he was asked to read. Why do I say that?
For us, who are habitual church goers by the grace of God, the liturgical readings of the second half of Advent, and Christmas, like the hymns and carols we weave around them in these seasons, have a consoling quality in their very familiarity, in, we might even say, their sameness. We hear them year on year, we ponder them year on year, and year by year the very rhythm of the words sways our spirits to peace. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. One of the most beautiful ways, and one of the most scriptural, of thinking about the Incarnation of our Lord is that here we have God coming to make his home among us; encamping with us, as we are told, for instance, in the prologue to St John’s gospel: that, after all, is what the Greek word, usually rather more abstractly translated as “living”, or “dwelling” really means: the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent amongst ours, coming into that great extended family we call humanity. And, if God, astonishingly enough, wants to be at home with us, he surely wants us to be at home with him, too. As we were suggesting this morning, the contrary idea, manifest, perhaps in our fears and half acknowledged ambivalence about the Second Coming of Christ, is itself part what we need saving from by the Lord’s advent amongst us. When the Lord returns, he will not be for us an intimidating stranger: we will recognise him, we will know his family history because he is one of us; it’s our family history too. The stories of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are like those tales all families have, where one person says “do you remember when…” knowing full well that the answer is yes, we do remember; stories that build up our common identity and give us, in our often frighteningly chaotic world, a sense of belonging. So it’s both understandable and good that we find comfort in the words we have by heart from the gospels. But we might still feel a certain wistfulness when we hear of someone for whom the good news is genuinely new, as, in a way, it never can be for us, when we hear of someone reading a passage from the gospel and waiting to find out who people are and how things will turn out
We can’t actually come to the gospel account of Mary and the Angel as though we have never heard it before, of course, we can’t forget that we know the end of the story. Perhaps the next best thing, though, is, to share with each other the impact the story makes on each one of us. Because God uses his word to speak to each of us in ways that are unique, this may enable us to recover a little of the freshness of hearing the message for the first time. I hope that, a little later, we will be able to listen to each other speaking of what the Annunciation means to us. All I would like to do now is to offer a couple of things that have struck me this year, in particular, one from near the beginning, and one from near the end of the passage, as I have returned to this part of the old, old story and asked myself, remembering the advice of the good Jesuit from this morning, “how is this good news”?
First, Gabriel’s greeting. The scripture scholars tell us that, unusually for St Luke, who, unlike, for example St Matthew, is clearly a gentile writing for other gentiles, the chapters of his gospel which tell of the conception, infancy and childhood of Jesus, the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary section of his gospel, have a high proportion of words and phrases that clearly reflect the Jewish background of the story he tells. With this in mind, it is perhaps particularly surprising that the Archangel does address Mary with the traditional word of “peace”: the “shalom” that we might expect. What does he say instead? His first word to Our Lady is, of course, conventionally translated “hail” - hail, thou who art highly favoured, in some versions; hail, full of grace, in others. But what is striking about this word, in the original Greek, is that it has connotations, above all, of joy: indeed, one or two Bible translations do render Gabriel’s words as “rejoice, o highly favoured one”.
What kind of joy is this to which Mary is invited, and what does it say about the kind of joy to which we are invited? Pope Emeritus Benedict, writing on this scene in the third volume of his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth suggests that the choice of this particular form of greeting at the very beginning of the story of the Incarnation sets the keynote for the whole of the New Testament, linking it with the angels’ announcing tidings of joy to the shepherds on Christmas night, but also with the disciples’ gladness at seeing the risen Christ on Easter morning, and the authoritative words of consolation the Lord gives at his Last Supper: you will see me again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. He goes on, beautifully, to stress that this joy continues to characterise the lives of Christians: joy, he says, is the particular gift of the Holy Spirit, the true gift of the Redeemer. And, for that reason, since, through his Spirit, Jesus the redeemer is with us to the end of the ages, “a chord is sounded with the angel’s salutation [to Mary] which then resounds throughout the life of the Church”. Pope Francis too, of course, has stressed repeatedly that the lives of Christians should be animated by joy: the joy of the gospel, Evangelii Gaudium.
An The liturgy in Advent is full, too, of exhortations to rejoice: the collect for last Sunday, for instance, Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing, asks that we may feel all the happiness our Saviour brings and celebrate his coming with unfailing joy.
But what if we can’t, or feel that we can’t, or fear that we can’t? As we were thinking this morning, there is all too much in many of our lives, in the lives of those who are dear to us, in the life of the world as it comes into our lives via the television and the newspapers, especially, it seems, at the moment, to dismay us, weigh us down and oppress us. How can we rejoice in such a world, at such a time? The first thing to do, I think, is to try to rid ourselves of any idea that joy is the same as jollity; that it requires us constantly to be whistling a happy tune or grinning when we feel like groaning. Such a stance perhaps owes more to a certain culture of self-restraint, the stiff upper lip, than to the values of the gospel. There are times, obviously, when it would not be virtuous, bur viciously insensitive to be all ha-ha-ha, hee-hee-hee. St Paul, after all, does tell us that we should rejoice in the Lord always, but also that we should weep with those who weep. And the Lord wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, and, whilst some theologians have indulged in intellectual gymnastics to try to explain away what seems to them an unpardonable weakness on the part of the Lord, the more natural and humane approach, it seems to me, is that of St Thomas Aquinas, for instance, in his commentary on St John’s gospel who is unequivocal that Jesus’ tears are the sign of divine approval for our mourning for our friends. Christ was a well-spring of compassion, St Thomas tells us, and he wept in order to show us that it is not blameworthy to weep out of compassion. And yet, if Christ’s human nature was endowed in the fullest possible way with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as it must have been, then he must have been constantly joy-full, as well as full of love, peace, kindness, patience and the rest. So, joy is not incompatible, in this sense, with deep sorrow; the sorrow that comes of knowing that things are not as they should be, in our lives, in our families, in our world. There is no need to feel guilty because we can’t always summon up a smile to order, that we can’t always hide our tears.
The very next word of the Archangel to Mary is the exhortation not to be afraid. It is perhaps fear, rather than sorrow that is the true antithesis of joy, but I think there’s a little more we need to say. Gabriel’s “fear not”, addressed to the Immaculate Virgin cannot, presumably, have the character of rebuke, and, whilst there is, of course, a sin of cowardice, not all of our hesitancy, drawing back before the divine majesty, has that quality either. Sometimes, it is quite simply natural for us to be daunted by God’s approach, by what he seems to be asking of us, even, for some of us, perhaps all of us, to be overawed by the immensity of his love for us. And yet, as we saw this morning, we have to be careful to distinguish the awe and wonder that God rightly inspires from the anxiety that the idols we put in place of God sometimes compel, especially, perhaps that idol who encourages us to believe we can never be pleasing to God. “Fear not” is an expression not of God’s disapproval at our weakness, an injunction to pull ourselves together, but an invitation, a renewed invitation, precisely to joy in his presence. And, as someone pointed out to me recently, the phrase, and others very much like it, occur no less than 365 times in the pages of scripture. There is no day of the year, no time in our life in which God wants us to cringe from him in terror.
What, then, of the end of our passage? We hear, with Mary, year by year, that nothing is impossible with God, and that the miraculous conceiving by Elizabeth of John the Baptist in her old age is the guarantee of this: it is now the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
Why, exactly, does this form part of the Annunciation story, part of the good news of Christ’s coming, and in what way does it show that nothing is impossible for God?St Thomas Aquinas, when he reflects on this question in the summa theologiae comes to the conclusion that it is a matter of preparing the way for our faith in the Incarnation, just as John himself will later prepare the ways of the Lord in the desert. After all, although it’s an astonishing thing for a woman of Elizabeth’s age to give birth, it’s not absolutely impossible, and, in the history of Israel, in particular, it’s far from unprecedented. Think of the women of the Old Testament, who had for long years given up hope of motherhood only to be granted the gift of a son: think of Hannah and Samuel, think, above all, of Sarah and Isaac. A virgin conceiving is, of course, a much more radically miraculous event: almost a contradiction in terms. How can this be, since I know not a man? So we are given the lesser miracle on which to exercise the muscles of our belief, as it were, before being confronted with the greater.
That is true, and it’s important, but I wonder if there’s not, perhaps especially for us as Dominican women, something more straightforwardly positive about this news from the house of Zechariah, something important about it in its own right. In this year’s gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent, we have the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah proclaiming, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, that all flesh will see the salvation of God. Now Mary, in the most intimate and beautiful way possible, of course, sees – and feels and enfolds – the salvation of God in her flesh, as the redeemer grows in her womb and she brings him forth to the world, wraps him in swaddling and feeds him at her breast. But the flesh of Mary is, we might feel, one thing; our flesh, very much another. She is the maiden who is with child, the fair ewe, the mystical rose, house of gold, the bush that burns and is not consumed, the fleece drenched with divine dew, the morning star. All the traditional imagery the church loves to use of her rightly stresses youth, freshness, brightness, vivacity. It is easy to see that there is a rightness, a fittingness, about the flesh of Mary being the location in which God chooses to dwell when he comes amongst us: she is fashioned for that very purpose – that, after all, is what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is all about. But what of our flesh, which is not young, fresh, bright, vivacious? How might we hope, in our flesh, to see the salvation of our God?
And here, perhaps, the figure of Elizabeth can be a particular source of hope. The text of St Luke’s gospel does not, of course, give us much by way of a character sketch of Elizabeth, beyond assuring us that she was righteous. But we might surely imagine that even this righteous woman, through the decades in which she bore the shame of her infertility, might have been burdened perhaps by bitterness and resentment, perhaps by the temptation to see her vocation as a daughter of Abraham nullified by her sterility, her vocation as barren as her womb. And we know nothing of her physical condition, except that she is past the natural years of childbearing, so that we might imagine her being subject to bone-tiredness, diminishing energy, and, surely, after the conception of St John, subject too, to anxieties more intense that those likely to afflict younger mothers: how would her un-supple body withstand childbirth, her weary limbs keep up with the demands of a baby or a toddler?
And yet, the flesh of Elizabeth, too, sees, and feels the salvation of God. The babe leaps in her womb at the presence of his unborn cousin who is his Saviour and hers, and Elizabeth cries out in joy and praise. She finds her vocation at long last, and, in the frailty of her age, she preaches the coming of the Lord and, at length, gives birth to preaching too. That, surely, must be good news for all of us, when we are tempted, as from time to time at least perhaps all of us are, to believe that it is too late for us to achieve anything for the Lord, that we are too fragile, too cramped by our past, too tired, too weighed down by our failures to love or inspire love in others. Our flesh, too, can see the salvation of our God, and we can cry out in welcome. Come, Lord Jesus.