Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding Joy Amidst the Sorrow - A Lady Day Reflection

The Annunciation, by Matthias Stom

Tomorrow, Saturday 25 March, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, traditionally known as Lady Day. It celebrates the announcement of the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. (Notice anything about the date? Nine months until...?) One of the odd things about Lady Day, a great day of celebration, is that it falls during Lent, a period of penance. In the midst of all our fasting and sacrifices comes this solemnity - liturgically on par with Sundays - when we not only cease from our fasting, but actually commence feasting.

In some ways this odd juxtaposition is simply the result of calendar constraints. If the Annunciation is to be celebrated the biologically proper nine months before Christmas (there, I told you), it's got to be in Lent. But I think we can also discern a deeper meaning to this scheduling coincidence. While Lent is traditionally associated with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, the Annunciation is the first of the Joyful Mysteries. And yet, if you give some thought to these so-called "Joyful" Mysteries, you see that their circumstances are rather ambiguous, possibly rather unhappy.

At the Annunciation, Mary - an unmarried young woman - is told that she will bear a child. At best, her neighbors and friends will presume she and her fiancé lack the continence to abstain from intimacy until marriage; it is quite possible they will assume far worse things about her character or that she will be exposed to the life-threatening provisions of the Jewish law regarding fornicators.

Mary, the single expectant mother, then travels "in haste" from the town of Nazareth to visit her kinswoman in Judah, to the south. Is she fleeing from Joseph? From her neighbors? Perhaps she simply travels to assist Elizabeth at the end of her own pregnancy. But no matter how noble Mary's actual intentions may be, they probably do little to quell the gossip. And then there is the matter of traveling - which, in Mary's day meant walking - probably by herself, for several days between Nazareth and Judah, while probably experiencing the morning sickness of the first trimester. Having arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary experiences the joy of hearing Elizabeth's inspired words of praise, but also has to deal with the difficulty that Zachariah has been struck mute, no doubt complicating chores and plans for the new baby's arrival.

At Christmas, as Mary's due date approached, she and Joseph - yet still unmarried - are forced to travel to Bethlehem because the Roman occupiers want to conduct a census. Oh joy. There in Bethlehem she gives birth to a son in a cave that's serving as a barn, because no one will offer them even a simple place to stay. Not exactly an optimal delivery experience.

While still in the Greater Jerusalem area - Bethlehem is not far away - Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord. There the prophet Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. A short while later, Joseph is told in a dream by an angel that King Herod is trying to kill Jesus - and will indeed kill many innocent children in pursuit of the messiah. So the whole family, with only whatever possessions they happen to have with them, travel to Egypt, to live in exile for an indefinite length of time.

Finally, having returned to Nazareth after the death of Herod, Mary and Joseph might have thought they could settle into a quiet life. Then they lose track of Jesus while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Is this the thanks they get for trying to fulfil the Law and observe the pilgrimage festivals? For three days they search about, doubtless with great anxiety.

These are the Joyful Mysteries: an unplanned pregnancy, gossip, foreign occupation, inhospitality, exile, heartbreak, and anxiety. If this is joy, I don't want to hear about sorrow!

Mary and Joseph were not naïve or oblivious. They recognized and experienced all these hurts and challenges. But the Joyful Mysteries are joyful because the Holy Family recognized much larger forces at work, the grace of the Incarnate God filling their lives.

Lady Day, the celebration of the Annunciation, is not simply a break from Lent, a moment where we can ignore our penance and the reality of suffering. Rather, Lady Day is a clarion call to see the world and all of life with the eyes of faith, by which we will perceive that God stands ever at hand, ready to transform our sorrows into joy, if only we will say with Mary: "May it be done to me according to your word."
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