December 18, 2011


“Where Joy Comes From”

Luke 1:46-55


46 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”


 I once heard that the difference between happiness and joy was that happiness depends on your circumstances but joy comes from God.   This may be true because Joy is something deeper than gladness. It is certainly not some ‘be happy attitude.’ Joy, is not a flood of emotions, but rather a sustaining tide that may sweep me off my feet…just as it does Mary.


Mary has experienced great joy, and I wonder about it, as one who desires it, and as one who believes that we all need it.


It is one thing to wander around searching for something, and it is quite another thing to have an idea what it is you are searching for.  Joy is not happiness.  If you go around looking for things that make you happy, you might well have periods of smiling faces and laughter but you will not have joy.


Mary cannot be happy about her situation.  This season, above all others it seems, finds many people…not happy, but actually unhappy.  It is easy to feel the unease of people around us.  You do not need special colored glasses to see the negative feelings that people have about themselves and the future, and to experience the dark contagion of their feelings.[1]  Christmas, let’s be honest, is a time that brings to our remembrance occasions in our lives that were not particularly happy, or joyful.  Still, the angel tells her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” It is impossible to see Mary’s song as merely naïve. No Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel could think the lowly were being lifted up. Instead, Mary has come to see that what God is doing through her is a sign that all of God’s promises are as good as fulfilled. God is faithful, and the old way of doing things is as good as gone now that God is becoming human through her child Jesus. God’s kingdom is breaking into our world in a new and marvelous way that makes it clear that the lowly are as good as lifted up and the hungry are as good as filled with good things.


Yet, here we have this young girl, who has received the word of her situation.  This is not a word delivered by a wand that produced a blue stripe.  The word has not come from the hand of a family physician, accompanied by the warm embrace of a spouse.  This girl receives the word without anticipation, in a social situation where it is not good news.  This news may land her out on the street, banished from her future husband’s home and shamed by her family.  This is not 2012, where Mary may get some assistance from a social service agency, go to night classes, get her GED, maybe go to college, meet a nice boy and have a nice life.  This situation is grim.  And yet, we have this beautiful prose from her lips that has become a favorite of Christians for a millennia.


Mary sings that this is not some new thing God is doing, but it is in fulfillment of all that God has promised Israel. The God of Israel is now acting in human history in such a way that it will not just break the kingdom of God into this age for the Jews, but for all humanity.


Jesus will affirm the very things his mother now sings. Jesus continually reminded his disciples in different ways that the last would be first, and the first would be last. He preached that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Jesus said blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, for God will give them the kingdom, fill them with food, and exchange their tears for laughter. Jesus told his followers that he came to serve, and those who follow him must also be servants. Jesus’ whole ministry lived out the words his mother sang, showing how God’s kingdom is radically different from our present age.


In Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, we see in hymn form that the kingdom of God has broken into our present age. No one is too lowly, too weak, or too undesirable for God. There are no outcasts in God’s kingdom. God does not look to the outward signs of status and success, but rather God looks at the content of your heart.


Of today’s gospel lesson, Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treaures, wrote:


“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”


And so it goes with us, much of the time. God’s messengers come to remind us that what is happening around us is not the final word.  God’s Word is the final word, and all we need to do is turn our trust toward it and say yes.


Still, we cling to what we know, the ordinary life that pays the bills. But God keeps calling and, surprisingly, is often answered by the least among us, the most unlikely people from the provinces. It is the barren Hannahs, and innocent Marys who hear and believe, and experience true joy.


True joy comes from saying yes to God. 


As many times as we turn away from their witness, God has put us together on the road to Jerusalem. It is never the right time, and we are never ready. We have other, more important things to do and places to be. The burden is too great for us to carry. But once we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” the angel will depart, and the path will open before us. We can trust that even in this violent, unjust and despairing world, God’s word of hope is true, and we will sing it with joy “from generation to generation.”













[1] Wicks, Robert Living a Gentle, Compassionate Life, Paulist Press, 1998, p. 132.