Justice and joy are intertwined, not unlike the link between joy and pain. To love is to suffer, as the mystics remind us. Deeply acquainted with the recesses of the human heart, C. S. Lewis wrote: “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” This is the kind of joy Mary teaches.
Baptists have never paid enough attention to Mary. During Advent and Christmas, however, we allow her briefly to be a part of our piety. We sing about her in carols that describes her as “Gentle Mary, Meek and Mild,” a rather docile and unremarkable figure. We forget that she was the first disciple, the one who believed before she conceived.
In countless Christian pageants little girls in white robes and blue veils quietly represent her as the only thing female in the story of the nativity. They sit in wordless contemplation, as if somehow cut off from the action of the miracle of Bethlehem.
It was the “wordless contemplation” requirement that prevented me from ever getting to play Mary in the Christmas drama. Since I had a voice that could easily be heard throughout the sanctuary, I got to be the head shepherd. My line was, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem …” (with appropriate hand signal!). Now that I have learned more about Mary, I would audition all over again for her audacious role.
This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, which is a call to rejoicing. And Mary is our teacher in this. The greeting Gabriel offers Mary beckons her to see herself as one full of grace. “Rejoice, favored one. The Lord (is) with you.” She did not receive this greeting with immediate joy, however. Initial confusion and uncertainty in the face of an epiphany is normal in the biblical text. Her faith has to grow in the twilight of doubt until rejoicing is authentic.
It is time that we pay attention to Mary, this one woman whose trust in God allows the Word to be made flesh, after our likeness. The New Testament does not idealize Mary. She is a poor and oppressed woman of Galilee, where her life is completely immersed in the social, political, and religious situation of her people.
It has been too facile for the church to imagine, as Leonardo Boff writes, that “all was easy and clear for her — that she knew she was the Mother of God, that her Son Jesus was the Son of the Most High, or that she was the most highly blessed of all women.” Her story is like ours; she had to walk in the darkness of faith. For this we should call her blessed.
And Elizabeth does. After the blessing of Elizabeth, Mary breaks forth in an exquisite song of rejoicing. It has dense theological meaning, but it is foremost the song of “a young women shyly placing one hand upon a swelling belly to touch the miracle unfolding within her,” as Wendy Wright puts it.
In the miracle of her baby, in her own private joy, Mary perceives the blessing of justice for the people of God. In this celebration, Mary stands squarely within Israel’s prophetic tradition. This faithful justice of God does not come without pain. Mary can hardly fathom the pain that will be hers as she lives out her vocation as God-bearer. Nor can we.
Mary longs for God to turn things upside down, as her great hymn, the Magnificat, insists. For centuries the church has allowed these revolutionary works to sustain hope. We learn something about the nature of rejoicing from this text. Moving in its unbridled faith, it conveys the character of God as one who will bring about a great reversal. The sheer audacity of this hymn is astonishing.
The virgin mother sings of the connection between her own good fortune and the leveling that is a result of God’s action:
the rising of the humble and the falling of the mighty,
the filling of the hungry,
the emptying of the rich.
In Mary’s song, the good news, the incarnation of God, stands ready to be received, but we have to make room for it in our lives by being open to God and, according to Luke, being open to the equalizing nature of God’s justice. As we lean into the rhythms of this subversive hymn, we just might be among the mighty who are cast down.
Rejoicing is not simply flowery words detailing how wonderful the world is. Rather, it takes on the urgency of petition, calling God to be faithful to God’s own promise. That is why Mary’s rejoicing sounds as if these mighty acts have already become true. We can participate in making it so, and joy will overtake us.