People experience the movement of Advent in different ways, of course, but one obvious way is marked by Advent wreathes, and the prayers that go with them. Each Advent candle has a special meaning. The first two represent hope and peace. Last week was joy. The theme for this week is love.
So as I prepared for worship this morning, I was thinking about the move from hope and peace to joy to love, especially the move from joy to love.
Now, even though joy is not this week’s theme, we get some joy in what may be the only story about John the Baptizer that is sweet.
The Baptizer’s mother Elizabeth was pregnant with him when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will miraculously conceive and bear the Christ child. As an encouragement to Mary, Gabriel tells her to visit Elizabeth. Our gospel reading describes their visit.
When Mary first arrives and speaks to Elizabeth, the not-yet-born John leaps for joy in his mother’s womb.
I gather that children in the womb can hear. Apparently babies can already recognize their mother’s voices at birth. When Carrie was pregnant, I did not want to be left out, so I made a point of talking to her stomach. Sadly it did not seem to work. Then, as now, my children would not listen to me.
But something deeper is going on in our gospel reading. John does not simply recognize Mary’s voice. Somehow, even in utero, John is able to experience the joy of being in the presence of his Lord. John felt the love of God radiating out of the Virgin Mary. John felt the joy of new and better life made possible by Jesus Christ. John felt blessed by the presence of God who was coming into the world.
I love the thought of fetus John leaping for joy as he waits for the birth of Christ.
John’s mother Elizabeth is just as joyful. Elizabeth blesses Mary and Jesus. Elizabeth marvels at her own good fortune that the mother of her Lord comes to visit her.
Mary, too, rejoices in God her savior who has looked with favor on her, who has done great things for her, who is fulfilling a promise made long ago, to Abraham and his descendants forever.
That is a lot of joy revolving around the Christ child. And Christ was not even born yet!
This scene of the old woman and the young woman and even a fetus rejoicing at what God is doing is a model for us at Christmastime. We, too, are invited to rejoice and sing and praise God for the amazing thing that God has done and that God is doing, blessing us with his presence, entering into our world and our lives, giving us new hope and new peace and new joy.
But Advent is a dynamic season, a season of motion. In Advent, we are called to do more than rest in our joy. Mary’s song reminds us that Christmas joy is not just a gift for us to receive and to enjoy in the privacy of our homes. Christmas joy, Christian joy, ripples out from Christ, through us and all of Christ’s disciples, to the world all around us. Christian joy leads to Christian action in the world.
We see that movement in Mary’s song. First Mary rejoices in what God has done for her and gives thanks to God. But then Mary’s thanksgiving moves directly into a description of God’s work in the world. And what God does is shake things up.
A part of what God does is overturn unjust social structures. So God scatters the proud in their conceit. God casts down the mighty from their thrones. God sends the rich away empty.
Thankfully God also blesses. God shows mercy on those who fear him in every generation. God lifts up the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things. God helps his servants, according to God’s own promises.
This should sound pretty familiar because Jesus says the same thing in his greatest sermon. As Luke narrates it, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor…. Blessed are you who are hungry now…. Blessed are you who weep now …. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:20-23).
And, unnervingly, Jesus continues, “But woe to you who are rich…. Woe to you who are full now…. Woe to you who are laughing now” (6:24-25).
Scholars call this “the divine reversal.” It is as if God inverts the society we know. Those who are at the bottom of the heap—the poor, the hungry, the grieving—they are the ones who receive God’s blessing and the promise of God’s presence. Those at the top of the heap—the proud, the mighty, the rich—they are the ones who hear a word of judgment.
How we hear Mary’s song depends in large part on where we are in the heap.
Most of the time, most of us wish we were a little higher in the heap. I do. I wish I had a more money or more power or more status. But Mary’s song—and Jesus’ words—remind us that wanting to climb the heap, wanting to be on top, is not God’s way. It is the way of the world around us.
I would like to think that Mary is not condemning wealth or power or simple comfort itself. I would like to think that Mary—and Jesus—is not insisting that we give up everything we have.
But we cannot simply ignore the divine reversal in Mary’s song (and Jesus’ sermon). We cannot simply ignore the difference between God’s values and the values of the world. Somehow we have to move from receiving the good news of great joy to sharing the good news with those who need it most, with the poor and the hungry and the grieving and the lost. And that is to act in Christian love.
Our gospel reading is all about knowing Christian joy and putting that joy to work in Christian love. That is the move we make in Advent as we go from the joy of the third week to the love of this week.
Here at Saint David’s we make that move from joy to love in all kinds of ways.
A couple of weeks ago, a man stopped by my office to ask for a little help with Christmas expenses. He saw all the presents for the Agawam Christmas project. He saw the blessing basket of gifts and supplies for the people at Church without walls. He saw the food basket for the Parish Cupboard. And he said, “That is a LOT of presents!” It made me proud—in a good way!
We will not always have stacks of presents lying around Saint David’s. But we can always move from Christmas joy to Christian love. We should always be moving from the joy of knowing God’s grace to the love of our neighbor, particularly our neighbors in need of one sort or another.
And if we make that move, if we act in love, then we can make Mary’s words our own: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
May we know the joy of acting in love. In Christ’s name. Amen.