Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mysteriously joyful

Christian devotional practices from the Middle Ages have included meditations of the “mysteries” around the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. The specific scenes selected for emphasis are called the “Joyful Mysteries,” “Sorrowful Mysteries,” and “Glorious Mysteries,” respectively, with five in each set.

Yet at the close of the Christmas season, I was suddenly taken aback at the name of the mysteries of this season—the "Joyful Mysteries." Perhaps we who read the story of Christ’s birth retrospectively in the light of his later death and resurrection can call these events “joyful,” but to the people involved, to Mary in particular, joy does not seem the most obvious common thread.
  • The Annunciation: An angel greets a young teenager and announces to her that she will bear a son. The betrothed virgin is troubled, as any mother with an unwanted pregnancy can imagine, but humbly submits to what she knows will be a source of shame. A mystery, yes, but joyful?
  • The Visitation: The pregnant girl travels eighty miles to visit her pregnant cousin. When she arrives, the baby in the elderly woman’s womb tips his mother off, and the secret is out of the bag. I wonder about Mary’s fear in front of her cousin. Her Magnificat may have expressed relief as much as joy.
  • The Nativity: The long journey to Bethlehem climaxes when Mary goes into labor in the streets. There is no place to stay, and so the couple takes refuge in a barn, and Mary suffers the pains of childbirth on dirty straw among animals. Joy could only have come on the heels of fear and pain.
  • The Presentation: The couple presents the poor-man’s sacrifice at the temple, and Mary hears Jesus’ screams as he is circumcised. An old man and woman recognize the child as the awaited Messiah, and Simeon gives a chilling prophesy that “This Child is destined to be the downfall and rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed.” Then he turns to Mary and foretells that a sword will pierce her soul as well.
  • The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Mary and Joseph only discover they have left the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem after traveling for a day, and their panicked return must have been plagued by anxiety and grief. When they find him on the third day, the boy chides them for their fear and identifies his higher priorities.
I don’t know if I’m treading dangerous ground to say I don’t imagine these events being times of great joy for the Holy Family as they unfolded. Yet the Church calls them joyful: joyful for humanity, certainly, and thus by extension to the actors involved, however fearful and humiliating and painful they might have been at the time. Perhaps that is part of what is so mysterious about them.

I once wrote a (slightly controversial) post about God rewriting his own story in Hebrews 11, declaring against our available data that various men and women were heroes of a faith that they often did not demonstrate possessing. Perhaps the Church has done that here as well, pointing to this awkward union of God and humanity and declaring it “joyful.” The pain and fear of our human experience is not nullified by the Incarnation; it is heightened, and then redefined.

Only with a God who can enter a human womb can joy enter our human pain. As we close the Christmas season, that is still as much a mystery to me as it ever was.

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