When the angel Gabriel told Mary that God had invited her to become the mother of Jesus, the angel also gave her the news that her (much!) older cousin, Elizabeth, was pregnant. The news about Elizabeth was astonishing because Elizabeth was well into her Polident and Geritol days. She was eligible for Social Security and Medicare, but Gabriel said she was busy converting the guest room into a nursery: “Even Elizabeth, your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.”
Mary packed some things in a suitcase and caught the first caravan to Judea to see Elizabeth. Together, these women laughed with wonder: God had chosen them–powerless peasant women–to be partners in divine redemption of the world. God had unsettled them with delight. They had been, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “surprised by joy.”
The greatness and gladness of it all set Mary’s heart to praising and her lips to singing the beautiful hymn we now know as “The Magnificat”:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God
Her hymn (see Luke 1:39-56) shows us the way to a celebrative and expansive life. We have a distressing way of getting far too wrapped-up and bogged-down in the narrow confines of “self.” Our lives become smotheringly small and cloyingly constricted. Mary’s song draws us up and out of ourselves into God; she teaches us to soar, to lose and find our lives in the Holy One. She points us toward a pattern of life in which, as theologian David Ford put it, “Our whole life is continually thrown into the air in praise in the trust that it will be caught, blessed, and returned renewed.”
Praise rises from the awareness of God’s goodness and greatness; it comes from the heart of one who trusts that God is the center of reality. When we are free from the illusion that life orbits around us, when we realize “it” is not all about us, then we are liberated to experience joy.
I am perplexed at how glum and grim many of us are. Too many of us go through our days without singing. Could it be because we are not sure, as Mary was sure, that God is present and involved in our lives? Leander Keck, a former dean of the Yale Divinity School, wrote:
I do not know why so much of mainline Protestantism has become a joyless religion. Perhaps we are more impressed by the problems of the world than by the power of God. Perhaps we have become so secular that we indeed think that now everything depends on us; that surely ought to make us depressed. Perhaps we have simply gotten bored with a boring God whom we substituted for the God of the Bible. We sometimes sing the Doxology as if it were a dirge. Even the Eucharist. . . .is rarely the thankful, joyous foretaste of the Great Banquet with the One who triumphed over Death, but mostly a mournful occasion for introspection. A joyless Christianity is as clear a sign that something is amiss as a dirty church (The Church Confident)
In my opinion, Keck is right about many of us. We have lost vital and compelling interest in God, because long ago we settled down with a tame and manageable god who would do nothing we deem to be unexplainable or unexpected. We do feel over-burdened with responsibility, because we wrongly believe that the weight of the world rests more on our shoulders than it does on the cross of Jesus Christ. We are more impressed by the problems of the world than we are by the power of God.
My hope is that the Advent and Christmas seasons will help us recover a sense of God’s grandeur and love, of God’s majesty and grace, because, “when the greatness of God becomes real, the church is renewed, and there is joy in the heart and a song on the lips of the people of God” (Keck). I hope we will remember that to be “lost in wonder, love, and praise” is to be found, surprised, and saved by joy.