Of all the stories found in the Biblical narrative of Jesus’s conception and birth, the story of Mary and Elizabeth has always been a favourite. There’s something deeply moving in how these two women, one unexpectedly old and one unexpectedly young, find themselves sharing these mystifying and slightly terrifying birth announcements. And buried into this connection is the fact that one of these babies is to be the herald for the other. These women’s lives are divinely twisted together, so maybe it makes sense that Mary seeks Elizabeth out for support and encouragement.
Prior to Mary showing up on her doorstep, Elizabeth had spent five months in isolation – five months alone with the only other person in the house unable to speak. Being a pandemic people, we know how hard isolation can be, especially if you are really, really on your own. Elizabeth’s story never tells us why she’s alone for these months. Maybe she was isolated for the same reason that Zechariah was silenced? Maybe she had questions (and honestly, who wouldn’t) … maybe she wondered aloud: ‘Does God know how old I am?’ or ‘we’ve been waiting for so long and NOW God decides it’s time?’ We can only imagine the disbelief, slight frustration and doubt that would have been at the heart of the questions… we can only imagine because the only thing we get from Elizabeth is “This is what God wants, God does indeed favour me, and in this my shame is lifted.”
What about Mary? She’s still early in her pregnancy… weeks along rather than months. While we don’t know for sure, we imagine that Mary was on foot and alone on her journey. So, despite morning sickness and exhaustion, Mary walked the 130 km from Nazareth to Hebron, starting as soon as she finished up with the angel. For three days, Mary walked by herself contemplating all that had happened and all that she was feeling. Can you imagine what went through her mind? More questions than answers, I expect. We aren’t given access to her thoughts though. We don’t know if she questioned God’s wisdom in choosing someone so young. We don’t know if she questioned God’s understanding of the human reproductive system and that what was happening to her was physically impossible given that she was a virgin. After all, God had a little to do with how humans reproduce. Regardless, what we do witness is her resolve.
There are no songs of rejoicing. No gender reveal parties, no baby showers, no cute little pregnancy announcements. In fact, we don’t really get a taste of JOY – that high intensity, unexpected, feeling of delight – until the women are together. You heard it in the scripture – the joy was so intense that even Elizabeth’s baby did womb gymnastics at the sound of Mary’s voice. This
moment of doorstep joy shows us something very important about the emotion. It needs connection – with others, with God, with nature, with the universe. Joy, or as the ancient Greeks knew it, chairo, was the “culmination of being” and the “good mood of the soul”. It is something deeper than happiness, which tends to linger on the surface of our beings, and while a longer lasting more stable emotion, tends to be focused mostly on the self. Our happiness tends to be more circumstantial whereas joy tends to dig a little deeper. Brene Brown has done extensive research into the wide range of emotions that humans experience. Through this work, she has come to understand that joy is the intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure and appreciation. The good mood of the soul fed by the connection we feel with others, God and the world.
Now here’s where I get a little heavy for a moment because the season of Christmas is brimming with wishes of joy and joyfulness and rejoicing… it’s in our carols, on our cards, in our decorations. It’s a reflection of the fact that during this season we spend a lot of time connecting with others – people we love, people we haven’t seen in a while, with our church communities, with neighbours, co-workers… For the churched, we spend time connecting to the story of the birth, looking for the joy that comes when we recognize our connection to the divine… we light the joy candle inviting it into our world… we thrive on being connected to SOMETHING… nature, God, each other, ourselves. But right now, that might seem hard to achieve because we, like I said last week, are soul weary. There is so much happening around us that breaks connections that our hearts and souls hurt, and it’s enough to just live let alone seek joy. We’ve come through two years of forced social distancing and isolation – we tried to find ways to bridge the distances safely, but that too was exhausting. And we withdrew… we were weary. Loneliness is an epidemic globally. Then Christmas bustles in with its joy and brightness and yearning for connection and it bumps up against those of us who are living with the reality of loss – loss of loved ones, loss of ways of life, loss of relationships… how do we find joy in those moments? How do we share the joy that other’s feel?
Here’s the thing… weariness’ voice is loud and drowns out our ability to hear the good that is happening in the world around us, with the people around us, and keeps us from engaging with the joy of others. I can easily imagine the fear that both Elizabeth and Mary must have felt at the news of their impending pregnancies. Somehow in the midst of the tumult they likely had been feeling, each was able to hold joy for the other. Each was able to hold joy for the other, and in that acknowledgement of the amazingness of the other, both women were able to find joy for themselves. Connection amplifies joy, emboldens it, grows it. When our weary souls hold joy for another, when we connect with the Holy, when we hear the quiet voice of good news, when we stand in awe of creation, when we know we are loved and worthy of that love, joy grows. Joy breaks in like the Kool-Aid man breaking through a brick wall, and hits us with delight so intense that we can’t but be grateful and share it. Joy, in whatever form it comes to us, opens our hearts, expands our thinking and our attention, and invites us into gratitude. It’s not always easy to hold joy for another when your heart is hurting. And it’s okay to acknowledge that. But joy needs us to be vulnerable in the moment in order to break in, and to awaken our souls. Fear is the opposite of joy. Fear closes us up and distances us from each other, from God, from the world.
The act of holding joy for another, for holding joy for ourselves, requires a vulnerability – we have to open ourselves to the other despite the fear of hurt and jealousy. It’s about meeting each other where we are and allowing joy to work its magic. The more we make room for joy in the world, the more fear is pushed away. The more that fear is pushed away, the more we see the world and all its wonders with awe and gratitude, which in turn grows our joy.
A story to end with. Again, this comes from Brene Brown’s book (yes, I read other stuff, but her book caught my attention). She tells the story of her daughter Ellen, during which she “had the privilege of witnessing the expansive and incredible nature of joy and gratitude at play.”
She writes: This seems like yesterday, but it happened sixteen years ago, when Ellen was in the first grade. We played hooky one afternoon and spent the day at Hermann Park. At one point, we were on a paddleboat in the middle of a pound when I realized she had stopped pedaling and was sitting perfectly still in her seat. Her head was tilted back, and her eyes were closed. The sun was shining on her uplifted face, and she had a quiet smile on her face. I was so struck by her beauty and her vulnerability and the joy on her face that I could barely catch my breath.
I watched for a full minute, but when she didn’t move, I got a little nervous.
“Ellie? Is everything okay, sweetie?”
Her smile widened and she opened her eyes. She looked at me and said, “I’m fine, Mama. I was just making a picture memory.”
I had never heard of a picture memory, but I liked the sound of it. “What’s that mean?”
“Oh, a picture memory is a picture I take in my mind when I’m really, really happy. I close my eyes and take a picture, so when I’m feeling sad or scared or lonely, I can look at my picture memories.”
This was joy… that swirl of deep spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation. Elizabeth and Mary standing together on a doorstep in Hebron, that was joy – that same swirl of deep spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation.
May we open ourselves, despite or in spite of our weary souls, to that same swirl, finding connection with the Holy, each other and the world.
May it be so. Amen.