Advent III, 2019
Mary’s song is called “Magnificat” from the Latin translation of the opening, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” In our reading today, Mary sings “I’m bursting with God-news…” The implication is there is a great joy on her heart. Which is ironic. A poor, unmarried girl finds joy in a situation the world would find scandalous. From this visitation, she is fearless in her joy. How can that be? Because in an instant she has glimpsed what God has done, is doing and will do.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr noted recently: “When we speak of Advent or preparing for Christmas, we’re not talking about waiting for a little baby to be born. We’re in fact welcoming the universal, cosmic Christ—the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and history. Through Christ, God is pouring God’s self into all creation. To be Christian, then, is to see Christ in every thing.”
Henri Nouwen considers “we have hardly thought through the immense implications of the mystery of the incarnation. Where is God? God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small, and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless.” Then he ponders, “How can we come to know God (in the incarnation) when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power?”
I like Rohr’s term, “Cosmic Christ,” it’s a great definition of this majestic in-breaking into life the God has accomplished. It is nothing less than the power to overturn power and open the door for all to sing in fearless joy, whatever their lot or station in life.
Four years ago Nobel Peace Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent a week together talking about how to find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering. For over fifty years the Dalai Lama has lived in exile from his home in Tibet. For the first fifty years of his life, Archbishop Tutu lived under the suffering and oppression of Apartheid. Two men who spent the majority of their life in suffering circumstances, yet they are known the world over for the joy they find in life.
In their conversation they quickly dispensed with the notion that joy is a feeling that comes on and surprises us. If that were the case, it would be near impossible to grasp joy from the despair of life. It is, rather, as we have been sharing with the children this Advent, the difference between the smile on your face, and the smile in your heart.
Fittingly, on the Sunday we hear Mary’s song, the Bishop Tutu uses birth to underline how joy is different than happiness. “Think of a mother giving birth,” he says. “Almost all of us want to escape pain. And mothers know that they are going to have pain, the great pain of giving birth. But they accept it. And even after the most painful labor, once the baby is out, you can’t measure the mother’s joy. It is one of those incredible things that joy can come so quickly from suffering.”
And then he goes on to say: “A mother can be dead tired form work, and all of the things that have worried her. And then her child is ill. That mother will not remember her exhaustion. She can sit at the bedside of her sick child the night through, and when the child gets better you see that joy.”
For his part, the Dalai Lama spoke finding joy in recognizing the human community. “Many of us have become refugees,” he noted. “And there are a lot of difficulties in my own country. When I look only at that, my small circle, I worry. But when I look at the world, there are a lot of problems, even within China. The Hui Muslim community has a lot of problems and suffering. Outside China there are many more problems and more suffering. When we see these things, we realize that not only do we suffer, but so do many others of our human brothers and sisters. So when we look at the same event from a wider perspective, we will reduce the worrying and our own suffering.”
The Dalai Lama’s sense of life is a far cry from Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t’ worry, be happy.” It is not a denial of pain and suffering. Nor is it a “misery loves company approach.” It is calling for a shift in perspective from oneself, toward others. From anguish to compassion. It is seeing that others are suffering as well. Not so that in the tragedy of another, we can feel, better about our lot in life. It is a uniting of our situation, with others. It is enlarging our identity to note that we are not alone in suffering, but that we are all connected.
In her song, Mary only briefly praises God for the favor bestowed upon her. Luke’s use of the Greek aorist verb tense speaks of a timeless truth. It is a past tense, but it also expresses a present and future reality as well. So, while Mary sings of what God will do, she is also singing of what God has done and is doing! She is so confident of what God will do, she is singing it as an accomplished fact.
Her song offers what has been called the classical statement of God’s activity, the lowly are raised and the lofty are brought low.”
This is how Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rorh, you and me, can find fearless joy even in the midst of our greatest hardship and suffering. Mary offers the world the confidence that God will act, God has acted, and to us this day, God is acting.
Again, words from Nouwen: “Joys are hidden in sorrows! I know this from my own times of depression. I know it from living with people with mental handicaps. I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor. We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness. We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.
“We need to remind each other that the cup of sorrow is also the cup of joy, that precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness. Indeed, we need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation. Because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only the cup of sorrow but also the cup of joy will we be able to drink it.”
God will act. God has acted. God is acting. And we find fearless joy in God by being an angel for another.