Isaiah 35, Luke 1:46-55
December 15, 1919
The deeply sarcastic, and satire comics artist Tim Krieder described himself once as “smugly unhappy.” Though he grew up religious, he jettisoned the idea of faith after reading Carl Sagan and Friedrich Nietzsche. He considered depression to be a symptom of intelligence and that happy people just hadn’t realized yet. So it came as a huge surprise to everyone, including himself, when he started dating a joyful, energetic pastor.
He couldn’t understand it, really. She had a seemingly boundless enthusiasm and delight. He describes how differently they looked at the world. Where she would wake up each day and say to herself: “This is going to be a great day,” most days Tim would go: “Oh, this again.”
On one particular hike out in the woods near a lake, she saw a beaver for the first time and for weeks became fascinated by them, delighting in every factoid she could learn. During one conversation Tim brought up her persistent joy, curious about it because of how different it was than the way he moved through the world. She pointed out to him that in fact part of why she always seemed joyful around him was because she was around him. Tim, in keeping with his character, wondered how this could be since he was always around himself and was never happy. Still, that sense of joy held immense allure for him, as it does for us all, I think.
And I draw a distinction between joy—which is a more profound, more deeply rooted feeling than happiness, which may be more light, and while even being genuinely felt, more superficial than joy. For instance, it might make me happy to spend hours on the couch playing video games, but that isn’t joy. It might make me happy to get a gift that is neat and new, that isn’t joy. Similarly, I think that joy is not mutually exclusive with sadness, or grief, or realism about the challenges in our lives or our world.
There is a cultural pressure to be happy this time of
year, lest you be called a Grinch or a
Scrooge, or be accused on not knowing the true meaning of Christmas/the holidays. The Christmas music that is played in the mall, on the radio, at Target, is all unrelentingly upbeat, the tinsel and shimmer. Be happy. Put all your cares away. What is there to worry about? This is Christmas time, a time to celebrate, no time for sadness here. Make merry! It all bears none of the mix of longing, hopefulness, patience, joy, and quietude that describes Advent especially, but Christmas to some extent too when we think about the odds Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus really faced.
And for many of us, even the most cheerful, merry, and festive, this season is not so straightforward. While many gather with their families, others of us may feel our losses more acutely this time of year. While some have much to look forward to, holiday parties, an abundance of food and goodies and gifts, others feel an emptiness, loneliness, struggle with health—physical or mental. Broken relationships can feel more acute. That deep joy of the season (let alone a happiness) can feel elusive, or hard to find amid the mix of other complicated feelings.
This is precisely the type of joy that Isaiah and Mary are proclaiming: a joy not in negation of the struggles and pain of the present, but one that is intertwined in the midst of it. A joy that comes about in the midst of loss; a joy that blooms in the midst of the desert; a joy that sees all that is and chooses to rejoice anyway.
Isaiah describes a vision of a future time when the desert will rejoice and be glad, with miraculous healings, with abundance of water, and a return to Jerusalem for an Israelite people who were experiencing exile from their homeland under Babylonian captivity, where they’d been marched out of Jerusalem to live in Babylon. Everlasting joy. Gladness and joy, everlasting joy. Some day.
Whereas Isaiah is speaking in the future tense, it is notable that the rejoicing Mary is doing, the things she is praising God for are in immediate past tense. God has scattered the proud, brought down the rulers, lifted the humble, filled the hungry, sent the rich away. My soul glorifies God and my soul rejoices! She is singing, she is dancing.
But, wait, what? These things Mary is singing that God has done, did they really happen? Herod is still the tyrant king over Jerusalem. She is still a young woman unmarried but pregnant, uncertain about her future, poor. She sings that God has done these things, lifted the meek, filled the humble, toppled the despots. Mary is not naive. She knows who sits in the palaces, she knows that poverty still dogs her people.
Yet, she claims joy for herself. She rejoices in her body. She seizes upon God’s choosing her, a poor, unmarried, brown-skinned girl. She claims the empowerment of being beloved of God, despite the uncertainty of what will come. No she chooses to sing: “The rulers of this world only have the power over me that I let them have, and I will not cede one drop, for God loves me, so they are yanked from their thrones. God is in me, God’s love comes to birth in me.” This is Mary claiming joy amidst the anxieties, hardships, and aches of life.
Similarly, this year, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello found a way to claim joy in a place where that seems near impossible. A desert, like the one described by Isaiah, through which runs the U.S.- Mexico border, and where there a wall, maybe 25-30 feet high separating the two countries. The wall at this place is made of tall, iron rust-colored beams, spaced apart a few inches. Big enough to see through and reach through, but small enough that no person could fit through.
Rael and San Fratello, along with an artists’ collective installed bright pink see-saws, using the very dividing wall as the fulcrum for cross-border delight. Children and adults alike gathered to share the joy of see-sawing. In videos people of different nationalities, genders, ages, can be seen bouncing one another up and down, laughing through a wall that cannot confine laughter, smiling through a fence that cannot lock up smiles.
How will we claim joy this season? How will you claim joy this Advent and Christmas season? God does not demand that you pretend everything is okay or ask you to fake a smile if you don’t feel it. But I think God does ask us to savor that which is good —whether it be a cup of your favorite tea after coming out of the cold, a conversation with a friend or relative you haven’t spoken to in a long time, putting on your favorite music (Christmas or not), enjoying a puzzle or good book. God does ask us to rejoice at signs of justice, whether they be as small as witnessing an act of reconciliation after a fight, to the election of more women and people of color to our city, state, and federal governments, or as subversive as interactive, bordercrossing, neon pink see saws.
The truth of this season is that we wait for God to
dwell amongst us in the person of Jesus, born of the mighty and badass Mary,
who rejoiced at God alive in her. Friends: God delights to dwell in us, let us
rejoice with Mary that God lifts the weak and the poor, that God chooses us to
be the holy dwelling place.