We often confuse joy with happiness. I am happy when out for dinner and drinks with my closest friends, when sitting on the beach with boiled peanuts and a can of craft beer, and when my toddler is in a good mood! As Frederick Buechner says, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” Joy is not happiness. Buechner reminds us, “Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes.”
After the pain of labor, one of the most joy-filled experiences of my life was having my son placed in my arms. I was humbled and grateful, but I also wondered if I would be capable of caring for my child well. I wondered if I would be a good mother. I cannot even begin to imagine how Mary must have felt when she learned that the Son of God was residing in her womb. As an unwed, peasant girl who would have to explain her pregnancy to her fiancé and her parents, I imagine she was filled with great fear. The angel Gabriel knew she was afraid, and one of the first things he said to her was, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” She had a lot to be afraid of, and yet her faith in God was bigger than her fear. She came to believe that she had found favor with God, and she gave her life and her body over to be a servant of the Lord, putting her fear aside and expecting joy.
Mary surely would one day be filled with great joy when Jesus was placed in her arms, but before he was even born, she sang a song of praise because she knew that Jesus would not just fill her life with joy but the entire world with the joy of God’s kingdom. Mary cried out, "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.”
Though there is still great suffering in our world and the circumstances don’t look promising, we can still, with tears in our eyes, learn to expect joy. We must not confuse our own individual happiness with the joy that Christ is bringing to the whole world. Christ’s joy is present when the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty. We are to learn to expect joy through God’s great reversal, through the upside down kingdom.
This Advent, my hope is that our spirits will be taught to rejoice in what God rejoices. I pray that as we wait for our Lord to come again to us this Christmas, we will expect joy in the lives of all of God’s children. May the words of the hymn “I Come with Joy, to Meet My Lord” be on all of our hearts:
I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and free,
In awe and wonder to recall his life laid down for me.
I come with Christians far and near to find, as all are fed,
The new community of love in Christ's communion bread.
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends.
May we expect joy this Advent by working towards the world that Mary sang about, the new community of love, where all are fed, where division ends, and strangers now are friends.