Advent 4

The Beauty of a Promise

Charles Blakeman’s portrayal of Isaiah and King Ahaz


In one of the oldest churches in London, St. Etheldreda’s, we find a series of evocative stained glass windows by Charles Blakeman, modern but medieval in style. The window shown above depicts the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with King Ahaz (Isaiah, Chapter 7), which contains a quote from Isaiah’s prediction of a promised child, a prediction fulfilled in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1.)

This window portrays persons from very different times and places, side by side in the same scene. The prophet Isaiah, in gold, stands alongside King Ahaz, robed in royal purple. Both look ahead – literally and figuratively – to a later realization of Isaiah’s promise. That moment of realization occurred about seven hundred years later when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. And standing with, but behind, Isaiah and Ahaz, we see the boy David, who lived three hundred years before Ahaz. For David was a common ancestor both to the wicked King Ahaz, and to the later righteous King Jesus.

Freed from the constraints of geographical space and linear time, Charles Blakeman has portrayed the content of a vision. It is a spiritual perception not bound by our usual orientation toward objective data and factual information. The prophet and the king, if they are open to it, can apprehend the vision pictured in black and white, a revealed sign of something real, but not yet seen by human eyes.

There are fewer visionaries and seers in our world today, and this is no accident. We are overwhelmed by competing and high-quality visual images on electronic screens everywhere around us. And I value some of them like many others do. But they can lead us to be blind, blind to the important connection between what we see and what is yet unseen. By not appreciating the power of signs and dreams, we are not likely to look beyond what is literally ‘at hand.’

The Collect or focussing prayer for this past 4th Sunday of Advent mentions “God’s daily visitation.” This refers to a pattern we can see in Scripture. Through love, God is always revealing signs ~ signs of truth, signs of goodness, and signs of beauty. But, whether by reading Scripture and or through prayer, we can open ourselves to perceiving these signs. So that (as the same prayer says), at his coming, Jesus “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” In the final week of this season of anticipation and hope, this can be our Advent prayer.

The above window by Charles Blakeman, portraying the prophecy of Jeremiah (Chapter 23) regarding a promised righteous king. Below, Blakeman’s depiction of the visionary prophecy of Ezekiel (Chapter 47.)

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.

Acceptance with Joy


“Look,” says the prophet, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” What a strange promise! How could the birth of a child be a gift for a troubled world?

This is the kind of promise that Mary received from the Angel Gabriel. And it is the kind of promise that every one of us receives when we are called to acknowledge and accept that same gift. During this Advent season we have reflected on how there are a number of aspects of our response to God’s call, and to the promise of God’s gift to us.

Fear can often be our first reaction, followed then by wonder and uncertainty about the fit between God’s promise and our own suitability for receiving it. By attentiveness to God’s Grace, our uncertainty can be transformed into a humility ~ a humility that is willing to accept the Word of Promise and the Call to receive it. And if we come that far, if we are willing to believe and remain attentive, we may experience a wonderful moment. It is in Mary’s fourth response to God’s Word of Call. It is quite simply, Joy! There is no other word for it. Both Mary and Joseph, each in their own way, accept the unlikely and unexpected word of promise. And by accepting and receiving God’s will for what it is, they find joy.

Over the course of this Advent, I have shared with you four images of the Annunciation to Mary of the promised gift of a child ~ a child who would be God with us. In the image above, El Greco beautifully captures the sublime quality of the moment. Having accepted God’s Word in humility, Mary’s eyes and her whole being are uplifted up to receive the message. Her up-turned hand says it all! The gilded and hovering angel points upward, in the direction where all this is supposed to go, to the realm of Spirit. This is where the Lord will ascend through his Resurrection, taking us and our humanity with him into the very being of God.

Joy may not be the defining feature of our lives today. Yet, we can find the fullness of joy in the gift we celebrate this week. For we receive a gift whose meaning and value we can never fully anticipate in advance.

To this gift, Mary says “Yes!” And, with her, we can say, “yes,” as well. Yes to God’s Word that comes to us as both promise and call – a promise that he will be with us always, as we accept him for who He really is. And, a call for us to become new persons in him. For in him we find a spiritual maturity that this world can never give.

In raising our hearts in assent to God’s promises, and by receiving God’s call to be transformed by the Spirit, we grow. We grow into that quiet joy which was Mary’s, instilled by the Angel’s visit. Behold – a virgin has conceived, and has borne a Son, and we call his name Immanuel – for God is with us!


The image above is of El Greco’s Annunciation (1600). This post is based on my homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.