Preparing for Christmas with the Joyful Mysteries
“Are you ready for Christmas?” This question seems to dominate each year. For many, it brings forth stress, guilt, worry and panic. Most people hear this question (or ask themselves) and apply it to a few specific actions: Did I buy all my gifts? Do I have enough time to mail everything out? Did I overspend? Will my kids be happy with the gifts this year? Are all of the good trees gone, and did I put all my decorations out?
The next thing you’d expect from a Catholic article is for me to write that these are the wrong questions. Perhaps they aren’t the most important questions, but I’m more concerned for parents and Catholics who are missing out on the joy of preparing for Christmas, particularly a not-so-perfectly planned (or timed) Christmas. And this year, with lessened access to the sacraments for some, the first time away from family and friends for others and the stress of a wild year of surprises — there’s plenty of tension to go around.
And really, it should sound familiar. Two thousand years ago, life was fairly normal for a certain Nazarene couple. It was only a short number of months ago in his memory when he, a craftsman and widower, had drawn the correct staff on which a dove landed in the presence of the high priest. He was from then betrothed to Mary, a woman significantly younger than him. And in the sixth month, as St. Luke tells us, she was visited by an angel, and their lives were really about to change. What’s more? Her close friend — also significantly older than her and well past the years of fertility — was also to give birth by means of a miracle. A time for joy? Absolutely. Stress, also? Surely. But then Caesar ordered a census, and their plans were completely altered.
Each passing Advent helps me to consider the conditions and anxieties of the first Christmas, which is why praying the Joyful Mysteries with heartfelt contemplation comes as a timely advantage. There is no mistake or coincidence that the liturgical calendar begins with Advent, and the holy Rosary begins with the Joyful Mysteries. This set of five decades makes an exquisite highlight of the preparation, expectation and hope of the Advent liturgical season.
The depiction of the Annunciation from Leonardo Da Vinci displays a calm expression from the face of Mary, however, the scene and her body language are anything but. The sudden presence of the angel surely surprised her and caused a whirlwind, forcing her to quickly hold down the pages of Scripture she was quietly going about in meditation. Even the assuring words of the angel Gabriel must be spoken: “Do not be afraid.”
She questions even the possibility of such an annunciation but as soon as the salvific plan is explained, she has no more concern, no more examination: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word.”
What the Annunciation shows us is that authentic faith is open to the unexpected. A heart not quite ready, unplanned and unprepared for Christmas, seems to be in lockstep with the Gospel.
How Mary must have been bursting with happy anxiety to tell her friend of the recent events. And how Elizabeth must have been equally filled with delight at the prospect of raising these promised ones, whose lives were to be sewn together and confirmed with a leap for joy in the belly of the dear wife of Zachariah.
In her preparation for the coming birth, Mary does not delay: She hastily makes her way to Zachariah and Elizabeth as the first evangelist. There must have been so many other temptations in her way, though. Did she think of explaining herself to Zachariah or neighbors? Should she stay in a restful state to not cause stress to her growing baby? But never mind that: Mary, like Jesus, was constantly focused on others.
The hidden detail in reflecting on this mystery is that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for the next three months, possibly until John was born. Yes, she has the world’s most exciting news, but she cares deeply about human needs, too, taking time to care for extended family. In a year with so much temptation to worry, let us realize in praying about this mystery of the holy Rosary that we must pause, think of others and take real actions to minister to them.
We have passed from the pre-birth mysteries to the moment of moments: this is Christmas. But there is still plenty in this mystery that shouts “Advent” to us, that exudes the theme of preparation, expectation and hope.
The innkeeper’s entire life could have been transformed if he would have made even the slightest of accommodations. We dismiss this poor soul so easily. “There was no room at the inn” although when you move a thing here and some furniture there, it would be better than swaddle rags and a manger. But do we honestly make new room for the Lord at this time of year? There is an obvious joy in the expectant work of the Wise Men and the shepherds. They had important things to do as well but realized that there could be no greater priority.
After the monumental events of the Nativity, it may seem as though this mystery, the Presentation, is a little challenging for inspiration. But as with the Nativity, there is almost too much to choose from, especially for Advent.
During this time of year, I like to focus on the humility of Joseph. What is not present in the text of Luke’s Gospel are the specifics found in Leviticus. The laws of purification — which even the Holy Family is subject to — require the purchase and sacrifice of a lamb. The poor man’s alternative is the sacrifice of two doves or two pigeons. I imagine, being of excellent conscience, that Mary and Joseph wanted to give according to the height of the law, but they were unable.
Although unable, they didn’t pout. We shouldn’t, either. Whether we can give or will receive valuable gifts is of no measure: the measure is in lovingly offering all we are able to our parish, loved ones and neighbors.
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple
The year 2020 was tough on all of us. What an understatement. And for Mary to say that she and Joseph have searched “anxiously” must have felt like an understatement, too. How often in this year did we lose focus and sight on Our Lord? Bickering politics, lazily tuning into streams of Mass, angry about the lector who was able to attend but not you, pointing fingers about access to the sacraments — what else did we do to misplace, spiritually speaking, the Lord?
“Joy mixed with drama marks the fifth mystery,” writes Pope John Paul II (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, No. 20). The scene in the Temple is the same for us: we will only find God when we recollect the radical nature of the Gospel: “even the closest of human relationships are challenged by the absolute demands of the Kingdom” (No. 20). Part of our preparation for a good and happy Christmas is the denial of our preconceived notions.
Even if 2020 seemed like the worst year in memory, we must move forward in the light of hope. Between the eggnog and the lights, there is much joy in preparing with the Joyful Mysteries. Let these scenes from the life of Jesus arrange your expectations, priorities and measurements.
Shaun McAfee writes from Italy.