Joining Mary’s Joy

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El Creco, The Annunciation (1600)


With three prior Annunciation images I have pointed to some aspects of the Annunciation to Mary: fear at an unexpected encounter with the divine presence; surprise and wonder about such a greeting; and, the opportunity to accept the significance of God’s visitation. Today, I want to highlight a fourth aspect of Mary’s experience of the Annunciation, her response of joy at having said, “Yes.”

It is not hard for us to admire Mary and her willing response to God’s initiative, at first in her life, and then in and for ours. But how easy is it for us to identify with Mary’s joy, reflected in the words we know as the Magnificat, her song of praise, with regard to the promise of Jesus’ birth?

For many of us, these 12 Holy Days may be a time in which we challenge ourselves to feel as ‘joyful’ as we think we should be – or, perhaps, to criticize ourselves for failing to experience the same. But what is ‘joy?’ I have an icon that depicts St. Thomas Aquinas, wherein he holds a text on which is printed, “Joy is the noblest human act.”

Joy at this time, as always, is not just a spontaneous feeling prompted by fleeting circumstances. Joy is actually an act, a choice, and a willing participation in divine initiative. For the word joy is related to the verb rejoice. God says to us during these 12 Holy Days – as God always does – I am come unto you to bless you, to bring you new life, to transform everything you think you know, and in ways you have yet to imagine.

Until we get to ‘the other side,’ and can ask Mary, herself, none of us will know what she really imagined would be part of her acceptance of God’s strange and unanticipated plan of redemption for our fallen and troubled world. What we can be most thankful for is at least one implied word that was part of Mary’s response to God’s initiative. She said, yes. With her beautiful example, and so many compelling artistic representations of the same, isn’t it a wonder why we so often find it hard to respond as she did.

In this last of the 12 Days of Christmas, let us say “yes” to God with Mary. And then, starting with the feast of the Epiphany, tomorrow, may we live into the real joy of that “yes.” Her uplifted hand, in El Greco’s painting above, says it all.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.


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.

A Beautifully Hospitable Dinner at Bethany


It is evening in Bethany, the little village near the top of the Mount of Olives. A dinner party has been planned at a small and modest home inhabited by Mary, Martha and Lazarus. With their extended invitation the three siblings plan to honor a special guest. Since the three are living together, some folks assume they don’t have much money. This fits well with the highly symbolic world of their Scriptures because Bethany, in Hebrew, means house of the poor.

Jesus is a close friend to these three siblings, each one so different from the others. They embrace him with a love that helps us see what godly friendship is all about. Jesus and the siblings are especially close now. After seeing his loving tears at Lazarus’ tomb, and how he brought their brother back to life, he is dear to the two sisters’ hearts.

While evening brings quiet to the village, those gathered for the meal sense a wariness amongst their neighbors. Jesus’ arrival in nearby Jerusalem has evoked tension and conflict. Despite this, his beloved friends appear not to realize that Lazarus’ resuscitation has prompted a plan to kill Jesus. Just before describing this supper, John tells us that the chief priests and the Pharisees have ordered anyone knowing where Jesus was to report it, so they might arrest him. Tension radiates outward from the Temple, throughout the city. But at the top of the hill across the Kidron Valley, in the soft light of small oil lamps, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed to dinner. Despite having a small household with limited means, their hosts have planned a festive and joyous evening.

With spiritual insight, James Tissot has captured the circumstances of Jesus’ slow walk to the dinner. The Eastern Wall of the Temple is at Jesus’ back ~ the very place where he will enter in a few days on what we now call ‘Palm Sunday.’ He is ascending the Mount of Olives, from which it was believed the Messiah would someday come and enter into the Temple. In a very subtle way, Tissot visually hints at the storms hovering over the Holy City as the Passover approaches. Yet, at this moment, Jesus walks quietly toward what he surely wishes will be a peaceful evening ~ and for a pause from the stress and pressure that his coming to Jerusalem has aroused.

At this dinner, Mary models a beautifully extravagant idea. It is to offer all that we are, and all that we have to God’s self-revelation in Jesus! And, for the sake of God’s kingdom! To make such an offering is way beyond the usual and reasonable bounds within which we constrain ourselves. And far beyond the usual prudent limits by which we measure things in terms of cost. But as we see in Mary’s example, there is usually only one thing that moves us to respond in this way: joy! Sheer joy grabs her heart and moves her to give her all. Mary gives her all to him, and to the new life that he is even now unleashing in this world.


The above painting is James Tissot’s, Jesus Goes in the Evening to Bethany. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, April 7, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Delight


Periodically I’m struck by the sudden power of familiar words ~ of words which we are so accustomed to hearing that we hardly attend to them. Last week it happened when I was praying the opening confession in (daily) Morning Prayer. After referring to what ‘we have done and left undone,’ we express our repentance, and ask for God’s mercy. There then follow some remarkable words, which we say to God. With them, we identify why we ask for God’s mercy: it is so “that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.”

I’m sure these words stood out to me because— like many of you—I am still grieved by the horrible Pennsylvania report, charging dozens (if not more) of Roman Catholic clergy with sexual abuse. Even bishops and cardinals have been involved. And then, on the heels of that troubling news, came word that two men close to the President were now convicted felons. And, one of them has implicated the Commander in Chief regarding immoral and possibly illegal activity.

This leaves me wondering about us as a people and nation. How and why have we strayed so far from walking in God’s ways? And then, remembering the words of the confession, I was struck by this realization: maybe it’s because we no longer delight in God’s will. To seek and accept God’s will; to respect and be obedient to it ~ these are fundamentally different from delighting in it. And this may be the key.

In what do I delight? In what do you delight? Probably it is someone or something you love. I recognize this right away when I see a cute picture of one of my grandchildren. I love them. And I greatly delight when I see them happy, having fun and being creative. Closely related to this kind of delighted appreciation for someone or something we love, is joy. We joy in those in whom we delight, and we love them through joyfully delighting in them.

But we face a challenge here. For we live in a culture in which we have lost our appreciation for the important difference between passive feelings, and acts of virtue. If delight, love and joy are merely feelings, and feelings we hope that others will evoke in us, then we have sold these virtues short. For, in the spirituality and ethics of our great tradition, delight, love and joy are noble acts.They are not just feelings, because practicing these virtues builds character, both within ourselves and in our communities. Thomas Aquinas is remembered for saying that “joy is the noblest human act.” How true! He meant that we choose to take joy in the Lord, and in God’s merciful Providence. This helps us delight in God’s will, and live in God’s love.


This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 26, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The photo above is of my good friend Stuart, who takes great joy in fishing every day for lake trout, and who delights in catching and releasing them.