“And coming to Mary, the angel Gabriel said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you’” (Luke 1:28).
Those who pray the rosary regularly will easily recognize our Gospel today, the Annunciation, as the first joyful mystery. But I have often wondered if the real mystery lies in how we can consider this whole episode joyful – especially for Mary.
In Mary’s time, if a woman got pregnant before living with her husband, she could be stoned to death. The announcement Mary received from the angel was life-threatening news! Mary, through the kindness of Joseph, escaped death, but I imagine she was not able to escape gossip. As her midsection grew larger, neighborhood whispers about her suspicious pregnancy would have grown louder also. The Annunciation and its consequences were not all that joyful.
Perhaps the joy will come in the second joyful mystery, the Visitation. Mary went to her relative Elizabeth probably to help her cousin who was pregnant in her old age. I used to volunteer in a nursing home, and from experience, I know that taking care of people in their old age is not always pleasant. Seniors can get quite ornery, and the task can quickly get onerous. To make things harder, Elizabeth was pregnant for the first time! Hormonal changes and the discomfort of carrying a child could have made her crankier than normal. Let us also not forget that Mary herself was pregnant and almost certainly suffered bouts of nausea and vomiting. The Visitation does not sound like a joyful time.
Perhaps we will see the joy in the third joyful mystery, the Birth of our Lord. This is, after all, why we greet each other “Merry Christmas!” But in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus was born in a stable and laid in manger. We have heard the reason why from stories etched in our hearts since childhood: People had no room for the Holy Family. They knocked, but doors were not opened for them. In the Gospel according to Matthew, we are told of an old king who was so threatened by the prophecy of a new king that he had male babies in Bethlehem slaughtered. Jesus was born surrounded by death. A merry Christmas? The Birth of Christ seems more like a violent drama than a feel-good movie.
Perhaps joy will finally meet us in the fourth joyful mystery, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. Simeon and Anna, encountering the infant Savior, prophesied great wonders that this baby would accomplish for God. Our hope for joy is encouraged… until we read Simeon’s final words to Mary: “And you yourself a sword will pierce.” Translation: “Magdurusa ka.” That does not promise joy for Mary.
We have a final chance for joy in the fifth joyful mystery, the Loss and Finding of Jesus in the Temple. I am sure the finding of Jesus brought great joy to Joseph and Mary. But the losing must have been a traumatic experience. A young mother once recounted to me the most harrowing experience of her life. It was when she lost track of her daughter in the mall. Sales ladies and security guards came to help her and calm her down, but she was hysterical and inconsolable until her child was found. She was separated from her daughter for less than hour. Joseph and Mary could not find Jesus for more than three days. And this was no ordinary child – put yourself in their sandals and imagine how you would feel if you lost the Son of God! How can we call this mystery joyful?
The joyful mysteries, when we dive deep into them, seem to be lacking in joy. But the Church tells us that these are joyful mysteries. Perhaps then, we should plunge deeper still and revise our definition of joy. Joy is not when we do not have any problems. Joy is not when we do not have any obstacles to hurdle. Joy is when we may be beset with difficulties but we know that we are not alone. And Mary was never alone. She had Joseph and Elizabeth and Jesus. The angel’s greeting to her is joyful news: “Hail, Mary! The Lord is with you!”
Our faith does not guarantee that we will not encounter challenges, but our faith assures us that we will not go through them alone.
When I was a young chaplain in the Philippine General Hospital, I met a young child who was wheeled into our chapel by her mother. Because of my inexperience, I asked the ill-advised question, “Ano’ng sakit mo?” I will never forget how she looked at me and with a smile proclaimed, “Leukemia!” I could only think, “Does she know what that really means? Does she know how much pain she will have to deal with?” That night, in prayer, her face haunted my thoughts. How could she say “Leukemia!” happily? As I replayed the scene in my head, I remembered how her mother was behind her all the time, hand on her shoulder, and love holding her together. That child could face anything with joy because she was not alone.
When you receive life-threatening news, when your neighbors gossip about you, when you have to cope with unpleasant tasks, when you knock but doors are not opened, when death shrouds your life, when you steel yourself for inevitable suffering, when you lose a loved one for whatever reason – sickness, the cancer of betrayal, or the slow agony that comes from growing further and further apart – know that you are not alone. Look up from despair and see that you still have your family, your friends, and persons who you never realized care for you. And even if these people are not present, trust that Lord is always with you. This is why you can still be hailed as full of grace. This is what Christmas means: The Messiah we welcome is Emmanuel, the God-with-us.
To feel that we are not alone is a gift beyond measure; it is also a mission. We who desire to celebrate Christmas must tell the Good News to people in darkness: “You are not alone!” This Christmas and the coming New Year, to whom will you say this? To whom do you need to say this? Then we can have a truly joyful Christmas and a blessed 2018.