Take a few moments to drink in the picture above. What do you see? Look at each part of the painting. Work your way from the large, primary elements—a young girl, an angel, a suburban neighborhood—down to the details. Let loose your imagination. What does each detail suggest to you? What does it mean?
I love the untied saddle shoes and the girl’s focus on the book in her hands. She reminds me of a middle school girl in one of the classes I substitute taught. The artist, John Collier, calls his painting Annunciation; I call it “Middle School Mary.”
A few weeks before Christmas I was invited to preach on the Advent theme of joy. As I read the Bible passages assigned for the week (Isaiah 35:1–10, Psalm 146:5, Luke 1:46b–55, James 5:7–10, and Matthew 11:2–11), I looked for indications of joy. The word showed up once or twice, but the contexts of the passages seemed grounds for anything but joy: Isaiah 35 speaks of desert, wilderness, and parched land; James speaks of patience in suffering; in Matthew 11, Jesus’ cousin John is in prison. And then there’s Mary’s song (Luke 1) which, admittedly, I’ve usually skipped over.
A few days before I was to preach, a friend had posted the image above on his social media pages, along with a couple other non-traditional artistic interpretations of Christmas. Collier’s painting hung in my mind as I read and re-read Mary’s song. At first, it was hard to reconcile the faith and joy of her words with the earth-shattering news this unmarried teenage girl had just received. I imagined that 7th-grade girl in my class who always had her nose in a book. How would her world change with the discovery that she was pregnant? What if one of my own daughters had come to me as a teen and told me she was to have a baby? All the impacts you can imagine for a young, unmarried girl would certainly be true of Mary: Whispers, rumors, sideways glances. Embarrassment, shame, social rejection.
Of course, none of these (except for Joseph’s intent to quietly end his relationship with her) are recorded in scripture. Clearly, God wants us to see Mary’s ready and humble acceptance of the incredible purpose and mission he has for her. But her response should shock us. We should be jolted out of our comfortable complacency by the very fact of this young girl’s unquestioning obedience.
What is her response? Joy. Abject joy! She praises God. She sees herself as part of a bigger plan, a movement toward God’s work of restoration and redemption. Instead of shame, she feels blessed. In place of rejection, she trusts in God’s acceptance and control. Where others condemn, she receives God’s mercy. Joy.
But how? And what can we learn from Mary’s response? For me, the lesson was found in rethinking joy. In spite of hearing (and preaching) countless messages explaining the difference between happiness and joy, I still confuse the two. I want happiness; I need joy. Calvin Miller writes:
Happiness is a buoyant emotion that results from the momentary plateaus of well-being that characterize our lives. Joy is bedrock stuff. Joy is a confidence that operates irrespective of our moods. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel.Calvin Miller, The Taste of Joy, 11. Emphasis added.
When I confuse the two, when I settle for happiness, I doom myself to an unsettled life of emotional highs and lows, like a small boat on a windswept sea.
Mary’s joyful acceptance and obedience is rooted in a lifetime of expectant relationship with God. Though as a girl she would not have had formal training in a Hebrew school, her joy-filled song in response to Elizabeth’s greeting clearly shows a deep awareness and understanding of the history of her Jewish ancestors, God’s work among them throughout that history, and their anticipation of a Savior.
It is this disciplined and expectant faith that prepared Mary to receive with joy the disruptive, indeed world-shattering, report that she, an unmarried teenager, is pregnant. Mary didn’t need to find joy; she knew joy in the middle of the disruption because her faith was built on the bedrock of God’s goodness.
What about you? What about me? Am I looking for joy, or do I know joy because I know God and his goodness? Have I practiced the discipline of knowing God and his Word so that I can trust his goodness? Do I trust that he is at work for good in the world even as I am bombarded with news of wars and famines? Do I trust in his good plan even as I hear yet another diagnosis of cancer, a father’s death, a child’s struggle with addiction?
It is easy to see pain and death and destruction in the world around me. It is easy to recognize the masks of that pain on social media. Seeing the goodness of God takes discipline and work and trust. And in this disciplined trust in God’s goodness is a joy I can know.
(For John Collier’s own commentary about his painting, noting both the traditional symbolism and the modern interpretation, watch this video.)