PARABLES of JESUS
Sharing in the joy
“And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Our Advent journey has now progressed through Hope and Faith and has now come to Joy. Each element of the Advent journey is one that invites us to reconcile and revitalize our relationships, both with those around us, and with God. Hope identifies three things: a goal, a pathway to that goal and the agency, or power, to accomplish it. We have hope as Christians because we know that God has the power to do all things. Faith is the relational pathway that we travel on with God. Because our faith is in God and not in ourselves, we know that even if we fail or fall short, God is still faithful. In a similar way, we see today in Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, Mary has found her joy not simply in her own experiences, but in how her life ties into God’s great work. Mary’s rejoicing bonds her together with God and with all God’s people.
Of all of the elements within the Advent journey, joy seems like it is the most involuntary. It feels like you can approach hope, faith and peace in a contemplative way. In the quiet of your own heart you can reflect on hope, or faithfulness, or peace but joy is more exuberant. By it’s very nature it overwhelms; we aren’t joyed, we are overjoyed. It doesn’t seem like something that you can practice in a room by yourself. When joy comes to us, it overflows.
Think of the last time you felt a transcendent joy. I remember being told I had failed a graduateclass because of a missed assignment I swore I turned in and thus wouldn’t be able to graduate unless I moved back to Canada to retake the class. Since that was impossible financially and logistically, the only hope I had was to send an appeal to the review board and pray that they ruled in my favor, knowing that 9 times out of 10 they refused to change a grade. I waited and waited for a reply and nothing. I still remember the feeling of finally opening the response letter and finding out my appeal had been accepted and I had indeed graduated. This lightness of being filled me, it was like I could just float away any moment. I’m not sure if I could ever recapture that feeling. I can’t make myself feel that, the joy just overtook me in the surprise of the moment.
The Advent story is full of joyful surprises. We still feel its joy spilling over on to us today. Elizabeth and Zechariah were surprised with an unexpected answer to prayer, after waiting most of his life Simeon saw a fulfillment of prophecy before his death, the wisemen were astounded when they found the new king, the treasure, they had been looking for, the shepherds with the unexpected declaration of the angels and Mary in the Magnificat that we read today. Christmas is all about being surprised by joy. Yet in each of these stories, there is always someone who is unsurprised: God. As a kid I loved the surprise of opening Christmas presents. These days the surprise is mostly gone. Yet there is still joy in these Christmas mornings as I watch our kids unwrap their presents and see their joy. Perhaps you’ve felt that vicarious joy, it could be from holding a newborn baby or cheering on the home team at a football game. There is a power in that vicarious joy that allows us to hear God even if the midst of our hardships and in the moments where we don’t feel like a winner.
Some find life to be an uphill climb, with little joy in their own accomplishments. When I lived in Spokane, some of the families I worked with struggled to make ends meet while working back-breaking jobs. Yet they were also some of the most generous people I have known, because they knew the joy of giving to others outshined the difficulties they faced. The joy they shared in their generosity created a bond of community that strengthened them even in their challenges. Personal accomplishments like graduating from school, getting promoted, or running a four minute mile can be great things, but there will always be limits to these joys. There is only so much you can accomplish on your own. Mary experienced joy not because she was the most successful woman of her time but because she understood that the blessing that she received wasn’t about God rewarding her personally. It was about her having a place in the larger story of God’s work, that through her all of God’s people would be blessed and delivered from their oppression. Mary sung for joy because she was participating in a work that would bring joy to the world. Yes, of course she was happy to be carrying God’s child, but in the Magnificat we see Mary rejoicing for what her burden and her gift will mean for others. You never know what legacy your life can have when you leave it in God’s hands.
The declaration of the angel to Mary and her reaction has come and gone. No one else is going to get that particular message ever again. The surprise will never be replicated, but the joy can be shared because what Mary is rejoicing in isn’t really about her own experience, but about what everyone will experience.We can share in that joy. Just like humble Mary, you are part of a bigger story, generations after you will call you blessed because of what God is working out in the world through you. We all have a role to play together in God’s work. That joy of the Lord is our strength.
Thanks to the modern understanding of chemicals and biology, we now know that the joy response you get from holding a baby or a puppy actually releases hormones in our body like oxytocin that cause us to both feel good and to bond with a child (or an animal). While Mary would not have been aware of the biological nature of bonding, she was deeply aware of how this experience of joy left her bonded to God and to her people from generation to generation. In the same way, sharing joy and giving joy and receiving joy bind us together. They create connections. The bond that holds a mother to a child is also the bond that holds the world together. When we sing “Joy to the world”, we declare joy to all people. In Christ there is a joyful bonding experience for all humanity that allows them to be reconciled with God.
Maybe there hasn’t been much joy in your life lately. This has certainly be a trying season for many of us. The truth is that some people have had very difficult lives, facing poverty and oppression from the day that they are born until the day that they die. We can’t and shouldn’t just tell them to be happy in the middle of their suffering. Rather we must choose to bring joy to others in whatever ways we can, to find ways to joyfully surprise others and lighten their burdens. When we choose to seek the joy of others we can find joy ourselves, just as we smile when we see someone opening a Christmas gift or a card. Mary would go on to have a difficult life, she would be anxious about her child, she would suffer rejection and loss and she would grieve Jesus’ death on the cross. But her joy was real and it came from a place of deep investment in something larger than herself, a path of faith that she had walked all her life. If we want to feel that joy, we invest, like Mary, in that larger hope. And hope invested with faith will pay off in joy.
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