In the past weeks as the world around us ratchets up the frenzy of Christmas preparations, our scripture readings have been decidedly unfestive.
The first week of Advent, we heard about the apocalypse and were warned to be ready for the end of time. Last week, we heard John the Baptist shouting at us to repent – or face dire consequences.
Today the tone shifts. As we move closer to Christmas, as the flames on our Advent wreath cast more light in the winter gloom, we hear Mary, the mother-to-be, sing a song of rejoicing at the glorious events that are about to occur.
Mary has already been visited by the angel Gabriel, who has brought her the strange and fearful news that God has chosen her to bear a child who will be the savior of the world.
Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth, is also pregnant. And so as soon as the angel leaves Mary, she goes “with great haste” to see her cousin.
That is a natural response – to go to someone who will listen and understand and make the situation less lonely and overwhelming.
This meeting of two pregnant women is one of the most joyful scenes in scripture.
One woman is old, and her son will bring the old age to a close; the other is young, and her son will usher in a new creation.
These two women incarnate the truth that with God, nothing is impossible.
Both pregnancies are miraculous. Elizabeth is long past the age when she could have hoped and expected to have a child. For years she has endured the shame of being childless, in an age where a woman’s worth greatly depended upon the number of children she could bear.
Mary is very young. She is engaged, but not married. She knows that her pregnancy will make her the object of gossip and scorn, that the unlikely story of an angel telling her she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit is not one that most people will believe.
She is willing to do what God has asked of her, but she is still frightened and anxious.
How relieved Mary must have been at Elizabeth’s reaction to seeing her. Elizabeth has no questions for Mary, no reprimands, no dismay.
She greets her young pregnant cousin with pure joy.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” she cries out. “How can this be 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.”
That child, of course, is John the Baptist, the last in the line of Old Testament prophets who will call the people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Even in the womb, John joyfully recognizes that the unborn Messiah is before him.
Elizabeth, too, recognizes the significance of the child in Mary’s womb. But Elizabeth’s blessing goes to Mary, the young girl who dared to believe what God has said to her.
“Blessed is she who believes,” Elizabeth cries out with joy.
With Elizabeth’s joy, Mary’s anxiety and fear fades away. Her sense of joy and wonder is almost too great to contain, and she bursts into a song praising God.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she sings. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
Mary’s song is one of pure joy at the wonders God has done.
* * *
Ironically, sometimes at Christmas we may be hesitant to proclaim joy too loudly. One look around the world can stifle even the greatest joy.
But Mary’s song of joy is not just for those for whom all is well. Mary’s song is especially for those who suffer – the hungry, the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the dying.
Her joy – our joy – is because God is with those who suffer, who mourn, who hunger and thirst; that they are not alone.
Mary’s song is echoed in the first bit of scripture we hear on Christmas Eve.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” we will hear the prophet Isaiah proclaim. “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
Writer Joyce Hollyday experienced the truth of Isaiah’s words and Mary’s song lived out in the Salvadoran refugee camp in Honduras in which she worked.
Every time the refugees were displaced and had to build a new camp, they immediately formed three committees: a construction committee, an education committee, and the comite de alegria – the committee of joy.
Celebration was as basic to the life of the refugees as digging latrines and teaching their children to read. Whatever their suffering and pain, they refused to give in to their sorrow and give up their joy.
A few days before Christmas that year, the army had taken away and killed the husband of a pregnant woman. Another woman’s child starved to death even as preparations were being made to celebrate the birth of the Christ child.
But when Christmas Eve came, the entire camp burst into joyful celebration. Women baked sweet cinnamon bread and made special pork tamales. Children dressed as shepherds and passed from tent to tent, recounting the story of Jose and Maria in search of shelter.
“This Christmas we will celebrate as they did,” said one mother, “looking for a place where our children can be born and be safe.”
That Christmas evening Hollyday attended a worship service around a bonfire in the camp. She sat next to a woman who had witnessed the murder of her husband and her three sons.
The woman clapped as they sang a hymn, a song of praise. Then she jumped up, the first to begin to dance around the bright flames shooting toward the sky. She encouraged others, grabbing hands, widening the circle.
“I was in awe of her capacity for joy,” Hollyday says.
“In times of suffering such as the world faces today, despair can easily threaten to take up residence in our hearts,” she writes. “But those who suffer most remind us of how tragic and arrogant it would be for us to lose hope. They are teachers of joy.
“And like the infant John in the womb, they have learned to leap and swirl and dance in the presence of God.”.
As we look forward to the coming of Christ, let us remind ourselves that no matter what our circumstances, no matter what our fears and concerns about our own lives, or the world around us, to heed Mary’s example, and to greet the newborn Messiah with joy.