The Joy of the Beginning

December 13

Matthew 1; Psalm 145; Isaiah 7; Luke 1

Prayer from Anglican Book of Common Prayer (2019)

O Lord Jesus Christ, you sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient toward the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found a people acceptable in your sight. With the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Often pink, the third candle represents Mary in many Orthodox traditions. Other traditions call it the candle for Joy. Either symbol works; Mary’s joy expressed in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) sets the standard for how we should respond to God’s working in our lives, even when we don’t fully understand His ways.

The prophets were clear about the signs of Messiah’s Incarnation, including that a virgin from the lineage of David would conceive a son and call him Emmanuel. Seven hundred years later, angels began to visit those who would play key roles in how God would become man and make joy possible for us.

The first angel appeared to Zechariah (Luke 1). Of the three visitations in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Zechariah should have been the least surprised by his celestial visitor, yet he was rendered speechless, literally. Zechariah had been a priest for decades. He was actually at the altar, probably the most religious place he could be. He knew the prophecies better than most people, but when saw the angel, he didn’t immediately rejoice that the prophecies were about to be fulfilled. Instead, he was troubled and questioned the angel’s words. How could he and his wife, Elizabeth, conceive a child in their old age? It was impossible. Even when the angel revealed that he was Gabriel, the archangel who spoke to the prophet Daniel, all Zechariah could do was stand there, mute in disbelief. 

Six months after visiting Zechariah, Gabriel made another trek to earth, this time to visit a poor girl in a small, unimportant town. She knew the words of the prophets, but had no formal training in ministry. She was young, perhaps as young as 13, so she had no grand responsibilities. She was betrothed, and she had no illusions about her future as the wife of a laborer, forever insignificant. She, too, was troubled when Gabriel appeared, but her question, “How can this be?” was not out of disbelief, but rather a question of clarification. Her faith prompted her to trust the work of the Lord, as impossible as it seemed to be. She had to have known the trouble that would come of her position as a poor, unmarried, pregnant girl. She had to have wondered how her betrothed might respond. She knew the law well enough to know that she could be stoned for infidelity, even though she had not been unfaithful. Ridicule and shame would be the least of her concerns. But Mary did not dwell on the possibilities of future distress; she focused on the unchanging character of God. Unlike Zechariah, she believed the words of the heavenly messenger. 

Mary traveled to Judah to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth, a trip of about 100 miles. She had time to think during the journey of four or five days. While it is impossible to know exactly what she thought, she had to have pondered the prophecies of the coming Messiah in awe and wonder that the time had come at last and that she would play a role. Elizabeth corroborated Mary’s thoughts when she exclaimed that Mary was indeed the mother of the Lord. Mary’s heart overflowed with joy, saying, 

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. And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.

Luke 1:46-55

I do wonder what Zechariah thought about this young cousin who understood the prophecies and the character of the Almighty better than he. In the three months Mary stayed in Judah, surely Zechariah watched and wondered how his life might have been different if he had responded to Gabriel with trusting confidence the way that Mary had.

The third angelic vision wasn’t in a temple or in broad daylight. This message came through a dream. Joseph, betrothed to Mary, was a good man. Matthew called him just, a man who knew and abided by the Law. Still, when Mary returned to Nazareth pregnant with a child that he knew was not his, he had to consider his choices. His reputation as a godly man was at stake, and how could it be that his Mary was carrying God in her womb? He struggled with the decision, and, to spare her life and shame, he resolved to quietly divorce her. Resolution is not a decision arrived at easily, and Joseph must have wept during his prayers about what to do. When he slept, he had a vivid dream. Gabriel again entered the story, telling Joseph that Mary was indeed the mother of the Messiah, and that he, Joseph, had been chosen to raise the child in the ways of the Lord. Why in a dream instead of a visitation? The Bible doesn’t say. Perhaps since Joseph was a godly man who prayed over the decision he had to make meant that a vision was all he would need. If his relationship with the Father was sufficient for him to be the caretaker and provider for the Messiah and His mother, perhaps he was in tune with the will of God already. What the scripture DOES tell us is that Joseph obeyed, without question. He married Mary, kept her pure so that Jesus would be born uncorrupted by human flesh, and named the baby, Jesus, just as the angel in the dream had instructed.

Three individual angelic visits. Three different responses. And ultimately, three reasons for joy. Zechariah’s penance was nine months of silence, but as soon as he wrote, “His name is John,” he was able to speak. His first words were words of joy that proclaimed the coming of the promised Redeemer. His praise resonated with the prophecies, the promises, and the mercy of God. Mary’s joy seemed to be part of her character as she acquiesced to the will of God. And Joseph, the one who so often gets overlooked in God’s salvation story, Joseph’s joy had to be complete when Mary delivered a perfect son according to the words of the angel in his vision. Neither Zechariah, Mary, nor Joseph could have imagined being center stage at the Incarnation. They did not understand how God would use an infant to bring salvation. They trusted, with confident expectation that, because they were in the middle of God’s will, He would work through them.

God is at work. God is with us. The people around us need Jesus more now than ever. If we fall into Zechariah’s worry about how God will work out His will through us, we may as well be mute. To respond with joy as Mary did to things we don’t understand is hard, but when we obey anyway, like Joseph, we will find joy.

We need to be prayerful. Joseph was not an academic, but he knew the Law, he trusted the Almighty, and his connection to God through prayer led him to obey the angel without a single question. Zechariah, the most educated of the three, questioned the angel in doubt. Mary questioned the angel for clarity. Joseph just got up and did as the angel commanded him. We need to be so in tune with the Lord that we see what He has for us to do and we act on it. The prayer above asks Jesus to help us turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. If the joy at the beginning of our Savior’s life is any indication, we can be confident that He will be at work in us until that work is complete (Philippians 1:6).

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