The Beauty of Now

 

Rembrandt’s paintings are so often moving, and speak well of the Dutch genius who created them. When many of his contemporaries sought to portray people and events with greater realism, even if with much feeling, Rembrandt often put the ‘feeling’ side of his work first.

Rembrandt shows his sensitivity to an aspect of the anticipated birth of John the Baptizer. John’s parents were old and despaired about ever having a son who might carry on their name. The artist depicts the aged priest, Zachariah, leaning on a young attendant upon hearing that Mary has arrived. He portrays Elizabeth as also showing her years as she greets her relative with warm regard. Though Mary bears within her womb the holy child of God, she appears humbled in the presence of Elizabeth, perhaps awed at how the grace of God could touch both of their lives in such an unexpected way. Light shines on the two of them, just as it should, given the way that Luke highlights this holy aspect of their shared story. Thankfulness and quiet joy suffuse the scene like the warm light at its center.

Waiting and anticipation are themes we associate with the beautiful season of Advent. In one sense, these two words suggest we already know what we are anticipating, for what we are awaiting. By contrast, Luke’s story about the Visitation suggests a variation on those themes. “Expect the un-expected,” it seems to say, to us who live a multitude of centuries later. And this is especially hard for us to do, in a culture that is so dependent upon the precise measurement of time, and upon the predictability of events in the natural order of things.

Let’s notice this about Elizabeth and Mary, and about John the Baptist who is not yet born. Luke portrays them as living in the moment, as living in God’s time rather than simply in human calendar time. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, John leaps in her womb. Luke then says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, Mary, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Neither John nor Jesus are yet born, and so neither mother has yet received the assurance and peace that will come from seeing them safely delivered. And yet, in this moment, both women are filled with joy ~ joy about the fulfillment of God’s promises!

Elizabeth’s son, John, and Mary’s son, Jesus, would never be closer to the two women. And, in Luke’s telling, their quiet joy reflects their awareness of this, that now, in this moment, God is truly present, imparting grace and fulfilling promises. The same is true for us.

 

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Visitation (1640), Detroit Institute of Arts {many images online}

See Luke 1:41-42: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Context: Luke 1:39-56. This Gospel reading is appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent, Year C, which features the Visitation of Mary to her relative, Elizabeth.

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