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James Martin, S.J.December 05, 1998

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the December 5, 1998 issue of America.

“Happiness,” a friend said about this icon by William Hart McNichols, S.J. “Whenever I see this icon, I think of happiness.”

I was fortunate to live for a few years in the Jesuit community where the original icon hangs. We had mentioned to Father McNichols our plans to do some modest renovations on our community chapel, which had grown somewhat dingy over the years. Just some white paint, a new set of homemade curtains and perhaps a simple wooden table for an altar. We asked if he might “write” an icon for our new chapel, and he promptly agreed. As he thought more about the prospect, a smile crossed his face. “I know just what I’ll do,” he said.

A few weeks later we unwrapped the heavy brown paper that swaddled the icon—it’s small, only 12 by 15 inches—and stared at it in silence, full of wonder and gratitude. We received it, appropriately enough, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception and placed it where it still hangs, on a bare white wall over the altar in our plain chapel, whose win­dows front a busy street. The noise of the traffic outside, though, is more than offset by the deep silence of the icon.

It is a profoundly peaceful painting, and happy, too, as my friend said. And, like all icons, it invites the viewer both inside its world and beyond. It is unusual, Father McNi­chols explained to us, in that it depicts the Virgin alone rather than cradling Jesus in her arms. But Mary holds Jesus in another, perhaps deeper way—inside herself: In this icon Mary is visibly pregnant. And I am reminded of something an expectant mother said to me about her child a few months before she would give birth. “I’ll miss having him inside of me.”

For now though, Mary waits. Having accepted God’s gift with her fiat, she waits, read­ing Scripture—the Word both inside and outside her. The first Advent begins.

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