Two years ago, my husband took up painting icons, an ancient and exacting devotional art form. In his first iconography course, he painted an icon that depicts Mary holding Jesus as an infant. It sits on our mantel, and I look at it every day. It exudes tenderness and love between Jesus and his mother. He is nestled against her, turned slightly toward her face. His hand rests intimately on her neck. Maybe as a tired mother myself I am just projecting, but I’m always drawn to her eyes, which strike me as deeply weary and kind with a touch of sorrow.
As we near Christmas, the church turns our attention to the story of Mary. In the Bible, we first find Mary as an adolescent in a relatively backwater town. She’s a virgin betrothed to marry. Then, she encounters an angel and her world turns upside down. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” says the angel. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
To me, Mary embodies an idea in the Eastern Orthodox tradition: “bright sadness.” This phrase names how gladness and grief are never easily disentangled, how we taste both longing and delight, simultaneously, in every moment of our lives.
The Catholic theologian Aidan Nichols argues that the typical translation in Catholic Bibles of the angel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail, full of grace” (the inspiration of both the famous “Hail Mary” prayer and its namesake football pass), is better translated “rejoice” or “rejoice greatly” because this word typically “refers to the joy of the people.” The first word, then, that the angel speaks to Mary is an explicit call to joy.
And what is Mary’s response to this celestial call? She is “disturbed” or “greatly troubled.” She’s told to rejoice but she trembles in fear. Soon enough, she responds to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Soon enough, she will be rejoicing. Soon enough, she’ll be singing her famous Magnificat, which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
But first, she is troubled. She sits in tension — a tension we all sit in when God is at work but pain is at hand.
In the story of Jesus’ birth, we see the danger, chaos and poverty into which Mary brought her son. She hears cosmic messages from shepherds about the signs of God’s peace. Then, soon after Jesus’ birth, at his circumcision, she is told that “a sword will pierce through” her own soul. She could not have known all that this foreboding prediction might mean or that someday she would watch her adult son be tortured and die in agony, crucified alongside two criminals.
But as the Gospel stories continue through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we find in Mary’s story that joy and pain constantly intertwine. Her heart is full of all kinds of unimaginable memories treasured up and her soul waits to be pierced. Her life story witnesses to the profound vulnerability of mothers in a world where deep love does not give us the ability to protect our children from all violence or pain.
Mary was called by God, and her life reminds me that the vocations that God calls us to inevitably involve both joy and pain. “Love and loss are a double helix this side of heaven,” I write in my book “Prayer in the Night.” “You can’t have one without the other. God’s calling on our lives will inevitably require us to risk both. We know this dappled reality in the most meaningful parts of our life: in struggling through marriage or singleness and celibacy, in loving and raising children, in our work, in serving the church,” and in our closest friendships.
The poet and songwriter Rich Mullins asked, “How do you know when God is calling you?”
He continued, “To listen to the call of God means to accept some of the emptiness we have in our lives and rather than always trying to drown out that feeling of emptiness, we allow it instead to be a door we go through in order to meet God.”
There is a lot of focus on emptiness and filling this time of year. In her Magnificat, Mary sings, God “has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” In the Christmas story, empty wombs are filled. Empty skies are suddenly full of angels. Empty mangers are filled with the Light of the World. But first, as we prepare for Christmas, we recall that we cannot run from the emptiness in our lives. We wait for it to be filled in the right time, in the right way.
When I feel loneliness, loss and the emptiness present in even my very good life, I rush to fill it up. Winds of emptiness echo in a hollow moment of my day, and I run to distraction. I stuff my waking moments with busyness, social media, argument, work and consumption. These can be cheap attempts at joy, or at least at numbing any sense of grief.
But Mary’s story recalls that joy can’t be gotten cheaply. The pain of the world cannot be papered over in a sentimental display of tamed little angels and a cute, chubby baby Jesus. The emptiness in the world and in our own lives can’t be filled with enough hurry or buying power or likes or retweets. We wait for the birth of Jesus, who was called Emmanuel, God with us. We wait with Mary for our hunger to be filled.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”