Luke 1: 39-56
(Third Sunday in Advent)
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven we need to become like children. It is no accident then that some of the finest children’s books are deeply spiritual works. For years, I have thought of one of those books in the week leading up to the third Sunday in Advent. I continue to be struck by the similarities between the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus in Luke and the story of the people of Whoville and the Grinch from Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It`s not as far-fetched as you might think. Stay with me here.
Just to recap, the Grinch can`t stand Christmas and sets out to destroy the holiday in the town of Whoville by stealing all the presents, ornaments and food. Once he has done it he stands on the mountain overlooking the town and waits for his moment of triumph; “they’re just waking up! I know just what they’ll do! Their mouths will hang open a minute or two, then the Whos down in Whoville will all cry BOO-HOO.” But, that’s not what happens: “…he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low. Then it started to grow…But the sound wasn’t sad! Why this sound sounded merry! It couldn’t be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!!” He stands there perplexed at the sight and source of the Who’s joy, as Seuss says; “…he puzzled three hours till his puzzler was sore.”
Just like the Whos, Mary’s joy is also puzzling. Mary’s song of joy is very strange. She sings God’s praises even as she faces so much uncertainty herself, pregnant under the strangest of circumstances, having promised to be a part of something that she has no idea how it will turn out. She sings of the mighty being brought low, of the powerful being scattered from their thrones even in the midst of brutal Roman rule.
I just wonder about the possibility of that kind of joy, because we’re also in difficult times. I wonder if amid a pandemic, threats to democracy, racism, the questioning and unravelling of so much we used to take for granted if there is a place for joy. Real joy, not surface optimism, not a rose coloured glasses approach that is wilfully blind to the hard realities of life. American Pastor and activist José Humphreys says yes, it is possible. He draws on his experience of the black church in the U.S. to conclude that an honest reckoning with hardship and joy are possible.
(Play video: Reclamation of Joy)
“The greatest act of resistance is when we can claim joy”. José Humphreys gives us the great example of the black church in the United States. What else comes to mind when you hear that line? I think of Bosnian Cellist Vedran Smailović, who became known known as the “Cellist of Sarajevo”. During the Balkan wars of the early nineties, at great personal risk, he performed Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty-two days straight, in the ruined square of a downtown Sarajevo marketplace after a mortar round had killed twenty-two people waiting for food there. One newspaper story described the impact of his actions this way, “In an insane situation, his was an act of sanity, of beauty and harmony, that brought hope to many.” The greatest act of resistance is when we can claim joy.
I think of the early days of the pandemic and the nightly banging of pots and pans and musicians playing on their apartment balconies. I think of the homophobic graffiti at our church’s front door back in 2017 and how the community, with the leadership of local artist Kandace Boos rallied to transform words of fear and hate into a piece of art proclaiming love and inclusion. The greatest act of resistance is when we can claim joy.
This kind of joy is not pollyannish, it does not look the other way when faced with pain, with trauma. This kind of joy looks the pain and the trauma square in the face but defiantly reveals that’s not the whole story, that there’s a deeper reality. Transformative joy reveals, points to what is holy and sacred, to God, amid the most profane and ungodly circumstances.
It’s what the Whos do to the Grinch in joining hands and singing and proclaiming the joy of the day despite the Grinch’s treachery. Their joy transforms him by revealing the deeper sacred current of love and community that is expressed in gifts and decorations but not bound by them. Defiant joy does not attack or defend it simply proclaims and reveals the presence of the sacred. It proclaims, “this is my reality” and asks “how will you live now?”
Mary’s song is a radical re-buff to the powers of this world. It rejects their claims to absolute control. It defiantly proclaims a deeper, sacred, more enduring reality—the presence of God, the enduring power of love to transform lives, politics and economics. Mary’s song says that joy does not depend on external circumstances but rather a defiant faith that both rejects fear and control and invites us to live into the deeper reality of love.
We are all seeking after joy these days. Where are you seeing it? Where are you seeing expressions of beauty, of community, of love, of God amid the tribulations of our times and our lives? Where in our world or your life is trauma being faced courageously? Friends I invite us to take these questions into our lives this week. In doing so may God’s enduring, defiant joy reveal itself and prepare us to see the world with God’s eyes as we prepare for the coming of an unlikely saviour, born into the hard realities of life. Our Advent journey continues. Blessings on the way.