The Joy Journey
Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
On this, the third Sunday of Advent, it feels like we have reached a turning point in the season; the waiting and preparation transitions into a more active state of anticipation as we begin to contemplate the joy that is wrapped up in this season. Joy, delight, great pleasure, jubilation, exhilaration, all powerful expressions of an underlying sense of satisfaction and excitement. A state in which we find Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading as she sings out her joyous praise and wonder to God. But it is a state I do not often attribute to my thoughts about Mary during this season. When I think about Mary during Advent, I think about the fear and loneliness that she must have experienced. I think about the danger she was in being pregnant out of wedlock in her culture. I think about the discomfort and exhaustion she must have felt during the journey to Bethlehem. I think about the courage and strength she must have had to take on all that God’s call required of her.
Ron Adams, pastor of Madison Mennonite Church, explored some thoughts about God’s call and Mary’s response in an Advent blog post this week. He wrote:
A young woman, a virgin, is minding her own business. Maybe doing the laundry. Maybe making her bed. Maybe sweeping the floor or preparing a meal. She was minding her own business and doing her daily routines, maybe humming a tune or thinking about her soon-to-be-husband. And God spots her and decides to send an angel to disrupt this young woman’s life, leaving her pregnant and with an impossible explanation for it.
Inexplicable. Now there is a word that seems more fitting for Mary’s situation. And not just for Mary’s situation, but for many of the things we encounter in life today. How can we explain the pain and oppression that fills so many spaces in our culture? How can we explain the loneliness and isolation felt by those whose families and communities cast them aside? How can we explain the pervasiveness of violence and the perpetual state of ongoing wars around the world? How can we explain the imbalance of power and wealth? How can we explain that even though there should be enough food in the world for all to eat, people go hungry every day? On a grand scale, and in the small circles of our own individual lives, the happenings of life can feel inexplicable and leave little room for joy.
And these examples are only the some of the examples of things that we as humans do to each other. They do not even account for the inexplicable interactions of God in the world, actions that may be setting us on a path towards a joyful moment but are actions that start with chaos and confusion. Actions that require us to acknowledge the path that has been set before us and ask us to decide if we are willing to take the journey that path offers.
Ron Adam’s blog post continues…
This scene [of the disruption of Mary’s life] has become so overgrown with tinsel and snowflakes and wrapping paper that it’s hard to see how outrageous it was. God acted as only God can do when seeking to make the divine will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But here’s the thing. [Ron says] God’s miraculous and God-like plan? It relied entirely on a young woman behaving heroically. God was God. But Mary was extraordinary. Mary looked the angel Gabriel in the eye and said, Yes. Yes, I will play a part in God’s outrageous scheme. Yes, I will accept the consequences of playing that part. Yes, I will risk everything, my reputation, my betrothal, my family’s honor. Yes, I will bear God’s own child. Mary said, Yes.
In saying yes, Mary steps onto the path set before her and her journey begins. This week when I was pondering the word journey, my mind started to think about Chinese landscape paintings or Shan Shui – Shan & Shui being the characters for mountain and water, two of the main elements of traditional Chinese landscape paintings. While mountains and water are two of the main subject elements of this type of landscape painting, there are three other compositional components: pathways, thresholds and the heart, or focal point of the painting. These components work together to create a journey for the viewer. The image is not intended to be representational of an actual place, nor is the image to be taken in all at once. Instead, the paintings are presented as landscapes that invite the viewer on a journey of exploration and encounter as the viewer travels the pathways of the painting.
In many cases this type of landscape paintings are created on horizontal scrolls that are not fully unrolled at any time, but instead are opened to a small section and then scrolled through little by little as the viewer literally takes the journey through the painting, not knowing what they will encounter next and retaining only a memory of what they have just come through. The pathways on the scrolls are never straight or direct, they are instead paths that meander through the landscape and bring the viewer to thresholds, which are places of welcome and embrace.
It is at a threshold like this that we encounter Mary in the Luke reading today. Having just crossed the doorway threshold to enter the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary finds herself swept up into the warm embrace of her cousin. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Encouraged by the words of welcome and amazement offered to her by Elizabeth, Mary is transported beyond the outrageous and inexplicable reality of her current state and is overcome with joy.
For one sweet moment on her perilous and unpredictable journey Mary is offered a reprieve from trepidation and is reminded that she has never and will never be alone on this path. She lets the joy of this awareness fill her soul and it bursts forth in song:
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
The same God, who set this path before her, who has asked Mary to carry a heavy and special burden, is now remembered with reverence and joy. For in this moment, Mary can see the goodness of the Lord at work:
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
A mercy that is extended again and again by a God who chooses and promises to be present with God’s people on every path. A presence that is made manifest, in part, when we, God’s people are present with each other. Just as Elizabeth sparked Mary’s awareness of the goodness of the Lord, we too can offer sparks of joy to each other. When we journey with each other through inexplicable moments, when we stand alongside each other in the face of injustices, when candles of hope flicker up and down 16th street in Washington, DC standing vigil for equality, and when we gather together to praise the God who chooses to be present with us, we make space in the world for that presence to fill our souls.
May we, like Mary, courageously choose to take the outrageous journeys that offer us the opportunity to encounter, witness, remember, and proclaim the goodness of the Lord, so that we might be filled and overflow with joy.