From the moment we brought out the advent wreath, several members of my house have been asking when we get to light the pink candle. Not all advent wreaths have a pink candle, and that’s just fine, but ours does and that is just right for us this year. “Not until the third week, I told them. We can’t light it till the third week. This candle is for joy.” On Thursday, we had a particularly joyful time playing outside and, after again getting asked when we could light the candles, I finally said, “all right, all right, we’ll light the joy candle early this year,” so we did, on Thursday.
I admit that joy is not my go-to feeling these days. The word Joy is still all over the place—on websites telling me to buy presents and “give joy.” On the ornament hanging on my tree of a little shepherd with the words “joy to the world” over him. On the coffee mug that says “joy and good cheer.” But I’m not feeling the joy in the same way this Advent season for a lot of reasons you might be able to relate with.
For starters: Aside from the Christmas Eve that I was born, this will be the first time in my life that I won’t physically gather in a church building with a congregation for Christmas. Our personal family Christmas celebration will be different. Other than a couple of lovely virtual gatherings, it’s not like I’ve gone to any holiday parties or markets. And then, if we pay attention to the pain of the world, what’s there to be joyful about right now? Around the country, there are more and more people who are sick right now and medical professionals are maxed. We keep getting told to hunker down for the long, hard winter. The news cycles are understandably really tense. You probably don’t really need me to go on…other than to say that joy isn’t the ringing emotion. How do we dare even talk about joy right now let alone feel it?
But we light the joy candle this third week of Advent.
Why is it that Mary gets combined with the joy candle anyway? Is it because it’s easier to imagine Mary as joyful instead of John the Baptist who’s always painted as a little gruff and forceful? Is it because she’s just an adolescent and it’s easier to associate joy with younger people?
At first glance, it doesn’t make sense: Mary is an unwed poor pregnant teenager from a very working class family, who’s fiancé is planning to possibly divorce her right after marrying her. Not joyful. She runs to her elder, Elizabeth’s, house. Unexpectedly, when she arrives at Elizabeth’s, the baby leaps in her womb and here and instead of bursting into tears, we have her in today’s reading bursting out into song, “my soul magnifies the Lord!” As activist Ruby Sales puts it, “we expect Mary to sing a blues song with all of this happening.” And she busts into a song of praise.
What is it that marks a joyful life? Like this one Mary had. Like I said, Mary’s situation doesn’t seem to warrant great happiness. She doesn’t have many of the things that we associate with a happy life before her. In this day and age, she would be very set back by the circumstances before her. According to our formulas, many times, happiness hinges on success: I’ll achieve happiness when I land a certain kind of job. When I get into this high school or college (or my kid does). When I meet “the one” or get married. I’ll be happy when… I lose 20 lbs. When I’m finally able to comfortably retire. When I succeed at whatever the thing is, I will be happy. Maybe we fight against that a little but it’s a hard one to fight because it’s deeply embedded in our culture. I feel it.
We also say things like, you can’t buy happiness, but actually you can. Emily Heath says, “you can buy happiness pretty easily, really. You can find happiness in everything from a stiff drink to a big paycheck, or a nice meal to a new car. You can get happy pretty easily, at least for a little while. And then you can lose it just as quickly.”
But next to Mary’s joy, these formulas for happiness are fairytales. The kind of joy that overflows from Mary is different. There are a lot of ways to talk about joy and one of them sticks out to me this week when I think about Mary’s song of praise.
Psychologists say that our sense of deep and abiding joy doesn’t depend on positive circumstances around us (the right job, the perfect school, the perfect gift). One of the things our joy is deeply connected to is our identity, the things we value and the deepest seeds of truth that God has sown in us: These are seeds like:
We are forgiven.
God is with us.
Love your neighbor.
We are beloved.
We find God is community.
These are the deepest things of our faith that we know to be true. Are there others that you would add to this list I just shared? Is there one of these that resonates with you?
So when you think about it we have a sense of Joy when we gather with loved ones at Christmas. Especially when their love connects to that seed inside that knows we are beloved. We find joy in doing things for others and serving at this time of year. These actions of service connect us to those deeply held Christian values that all of God’s family are loved and deserving of justice and this brings us joy. When we give money or offering to places that connect with those core truths that we cherish, it brings us joy. We give offering to a congregation that affirms the truth that all GLBTQIA people are welcome and beloved and we feel joy. We support a sister church during Christmastime that is struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic and it brings us joy. (Actually, psychologists talk about how people who give to places that tie into these core beliefs are strengthened psychologically in a way that cultivates joy.)
In the case of Mary, her song is prefaced by an encounter with the angel who says to her “greetings, favored one.” She knows and believes that God regards her and sees her and, despite the tremendously difficult circumstances she was living in, I think she holds that knowledge with joy and she sings because of it.
Now I don’t doubt that Mary also sang the blues. I don’t doubt that together with that joy of her
Magnificat was the anxiety and stress of her personal situation, and an underlying tension for the political reality of life in ancient Galilee at that time. Mary’s life story, as we know, wouldn’t be one where the pieces always aligned perfectly. Sin and grief would also leave its’ fingerprint on Mary’s heart.
All of us experience feelings like sadness, frustration, envy, anger (that’s part of what it means to be human) but joy is not some feeling at the other end of the emotional binary. Joy hinges on a deeper, steady truth that lives inside of us. Joy is the rich and sometimes imperceptible underchord to the melody of life. Joy is the steady, stabilizing pillar of the house. Joy is the spread of roots that reach deep into the ground that sustains the great, great tree.
Under everything Mary was going through, she trusted God’s truth of promise that she held deep inside that she was highly favored and regarded. Her faith tradition had sown deep seeds of justice in her and she trusted that God would bring justice to the wronged, food to the hungry, restoration to the broken, and new beginnings to the dead ends. She trusted all of this, and despite the reality of her life, she connected with this truth deep inside and her joy bubbled up.
Mary could have responded differently to the realization that she was pregnant. She could have said to the angel, “sure, whatever, I guess carry the Messiah. After all, it’s not hard to live a joyless life. “It’s simple,” writes Emily Heath, “it doesn’t take much effort. You can put others down. You can dwell in hopelessness. You can even lob out negative comments on the internet from the comfort of your own home. The best part is that if you lack joy, you don’t even have to do anything constructive. You can just dwell in it.”
Mary, chooses differently and, anchored to those core beliefs of who she is and what she believes sows joy through her song of praise. She sings and hopes of a different world. She trusts that God is with her. And she is still sowing joy right here today in this worship service!
Beloved of God, I know that these are not the easiest of times. I invite you this week to think about some of those deepest values of our faith that you old dear and how your life connects with them. As people of faith, I invite you to cultivate joy and then to reflect it to a world that so desperately needs it.
Blessed be the journey.