In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said, ”My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Eternal God, in the reading of your scripture, may your Word be heard; in the meditations of our hearts, may your Word be known; and in the faithfulness of our lives, may your Word be shown. Amen.
When was the last time you felt pure, unadulterated joy?
I ask this question because today is the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally known as Gaudete or “rejoicing” Sunday. It’s the day when we light the candle of joy on the Advent wreath and reflect on the joys of the holiday that is soon to be upon us. So it seems to me that a relevant question to ask this morning is: when was the last time you felt pure, unadulterated joy? More specifically, when was the last time you felt pure unadulterated joy at Christmas?
It feels like a relevant question because I know that at least for me, the older I get, the harder it is to recapture that pure, wild sense of joy that I used to feel as a child at Christmastime. There are a whole host of reasons for this. For me, a lot of it comes down to pure and simple procrastination. I procrastinate to the point that about this time during Advent, it stops being fun and starts feeling just a little bit stressful. Over the past week, Barrett and I have started receiving packages from many of our family members who live far away. Family members who have clearly not only finished their shopping, but finished shipping all their presents as well. And instead of feeling delight at receiving a gift from a loved one in the mail, I feel something a little more like dismay. Because we haven't even finished buying the presents yet, let alone been able to ship them. And then comes the moment of panic when I realize that even if we finish the shopping this week, there’s a chance that the gifts won’t arrive in time for Christmas. And what kind of minister doesn't get their Christmas gifts sent to family in time for Christmas? And then the downward spiral of procrastinator’s guilt is upon me, and so much for joy.
But of course that's a fairly superficial example. There are more serious obstacles in the way of our joy. The state of the world, for one thing. Sometimes it feels like the older we get, the more it seems like the promises of Christmas— for example “peace on earth, goodwill towards men”— are nothing more than childhood fantasies that we would be foolish to continue to believe in. It can seem harder and harder to proclaim the Christmas miracle with the reckless joy and faith of a child when we see such horrible things happening around the world or even in our own lives. For some of us, our holiday joy may feel muted because of an empty chair at the holiday table—a recent loss that makes the holiday lights seem just a little bit dimmer and the darkness of December just a little deeper than in years past. For others still, it may be fear and uncertainty about the future. For example, being unemployed during the holiday season can be particularly difficult, as you think about the gifts that you won’t be able to buy, or even the bills you won’t be able to pay. There are many things that can feel like obstacles to the Christmas joy of years past. And while not every year can necessarily be the best Christmas ever, joy is one of the greatest gifts of the season, and true joy—the kind that comes from the very heart of God— is something that should be available to all of us, no matter where we may be in our lives this Christmas. So where do we find it? How do we access it? How do we get back to that pure, childlike wonder and deep-seated joy of this holy and sacred season?
I think Mary provides us with some insight into these questions. Mary, whose famous song of praise was our scripture passage for the day. Many of us are well familiar with this passage, knowing it simply as “the Magnificat.” It’s one of the most beloved passages of scripture, and is read every year in many churches during the Advent season. It’s been adapted by just about every famous composer and is the basis of dozens of hymns, poems, and works of art. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary declares, upon greeting her cousin Elizabeth, “and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary is so overwhelmed with joy that she cannot help but burst into song.
Now this is one of those moments in scripture that is so familiar to us that it’s easy to take it for granted. But a quick reminder of Mary’s position in life helps us see just how remarkable it is that she was able to exhibit such joy. Remember that at this point, she is still in an incredibly vulnerable position. She is young, unmarried and pregnant— not a great combination for a woman of her day and age. She is also a Jew living under incredibly oppressive circumstances. There had been numerous Jewish rebellions during that time period, the most recent of which, her parent’s generation may have been a part of. She may even have had family members who had been killed in such rebellions. And so it’s reasonable to imagine that the news that she would bear a son who would challenge the very authorities that killed thousands of Jews in previous rebellions would make her just a little bit nervous and afraid. Not to mention the completely terrifying notion that she was about to give birth to the son of God. There was a lot going on in her life, not all of which was necessarily good. And yet, she was filled with such irrepressible joy. How?
Well from what I can tell, there are two things we can glean from the text that may help us in our own quest for joy this holiday season. The first is that despite everything that has happened in Mary’s life and despite everything going on around her, she remains firmly focused on God and what God is doing in that moment of her life. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary says. Not her status as an unmarried pregnant woman. Not the predicament of the Jews or the state of the world around her— but the Lord. Because she was focused on God, because she was magnifying God’s movement in her life rather than the problems and perils of her life, her heart was full of joy. Which begs the question for the rest of us, what do our souls magnify as we head into the holiday season? To magnify something means to make it larger— to make it the primary focus of our vision and attention. So what do we magnify this Advent? Do we magnify our problems— the areas of our life where we are unhappy or discontent? Do we magnify the problems of the world around us? Do we magnify the things we lack or what’s missing from our lives? Or do we magnify the Lord? Do we magnify God’s abundant blessings that are already present in our lives and God’s Spirit which resides already in our hearts? What if, instead of constantly focusing our attention on all the stuff that stresses us out and brings us down, we were to magnify the overwhelming gift of this season—that of God being born among us—the creator of the universe taking on human flesh so that we might know something more of God and God’s desire to be in relationship with us? “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings. Perhaps, if we did the same, despite all the other distractions of the season, we might know something of the kind of joy she felt.
So that’s the first aspect of Mary’s song that may help us in our quest for joy this holiday season. The second thing that may be helpful for us to focus on is her tremendous sense of hope. After the opening verses of the song, when Mary talks about God’s movement in her life, she quickly moves on to express great hope for the future of the world. The second half of the Magnificat contains some of the most beautiful words of hope in all of scripture. “He has shown strength with his arm,” Mary declares, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; and he has filled the hungry with good things.” Now again, depending on what we magnify in our vision, these words could seem hopelessly naive. Even as Mary sang these words, the Romans were still in power and surely there were plenty of people without their fair share of daily bread. To many observers, it might seem like Mary’s grasp on reality was just a little bit off. Or maybe she just saw things through a different lens.
Writer John Stendahl observes that “it is by our imagining—by what our hearts picture in fear or hope— that we humans are pushed and pulled in our many directions.” It is by our imagining—by what our hearts choose to magnify— either fear or hope— that we are pushed and pulled in our many directions. If we choose to magnify fear or despair, for example, we will see only those places where joy is lacking, or those places where we think God is absent. But if we, like Mary, choose to magnify hope in our hearts, then perhaps our vision will start to change. Perhaps if we view the world through a magnifying lens of hope we might start to become more aware of those places where indeed the hungry have been filled with good things.
I’m sure most of you have heard of the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy- also known as the law of attraction. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, the theory behind the law of attraction is that expectations about circumstances, events, or people may affect a person’s behavior toward them in such a way that he or she (unknowingly) creates situations in which those expectations are fulfilled. So for example: an employer sees a new employee and automatically expects him or her to be disloyal for one reason or another. The employer then treats the employee in such a way— maybe with suspicion or mistrust— to elicit the very response they initially concluded. Or let’s say you go to a party where you don’t know many people, and your belief about yourself is that you don’t make good first impressions. If you believe that, or if you worry that nobody will like you, you might enter the party acting awkward, anxious, and standoffish. In turn, people are likely to interact with you with less enthusiasm, which only reinforces your belief that you’re not good with people you don’t know. Self-fulfilling prophecy—the law of attraction.
Now I realize these are fairly inane examples, but the point is, oftentimes, we create our reality by what we magnify in our own imaginations. So what would happen in our lives and in our world if we chose to magnify a belief in God’s enduring love and justice—to imagine a world in which Mary’s great words of hope have indeed already come to pass? Would we actually start to create the world that at first we only imagined? Or maybe we would simply start to see the reality of Mary’s song in a way that we didn’t see it before because we had the magnifying glass focused on something else. I realize that on the one hand, the idea that we just make believe in a reality we cannot yet see can seem childish and naive. But on the other hand, think of how different our lives might be, or think of how different our world might be, if we behaved in such a way towards others or towards difficult situations that we actually believed God’s work was already at hand. How might that change the way we act? How might that change the outcome we achieve?
In his book Surprised By Joy, which he wrote after his wife passed away from cancer, C.S. Lewis defines joy not as mere happiness or pleasure, but as something more akin to desire—a desire for something more, a desire to seek after that which we cannot yet see. “All joy is a reminder,” he says. “It is never a possession, but always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still 'about to be’ In other words—joy stems from hope. And for Mary, it seems that the core of her joy in the present comes in part from her great sense of hope for the future. Which itself comes from her magnification of what the Lord was already doing in her and for her in that very moment.
Awareness and magnification of what God is doing and hope for what God will continue to do. Two ingredients to lead us towards a deeper sense of joy this holiday season. I pray that all of us, no matter where we are in our lives this year, may find a piece of that kind of joy. May we enter into this holiday season with the faith and hope of a child— ready to believe in the impossible, to imagine beyond what is seen, and to experience true and lasting joy in this sacred season and beyond.
Amen, and may it be so.