Joy is everywhere in the Bible. Yet, it is in the Christmas story that we find some of the most beautiful, moving, and famous words of joy in Scripture. They are spoken by Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are miraculously pregnant, and, when they meet, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb causing Elizabeth to recognize and greet Mary as the “mother of the Lord” (Luke 1:43). Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s greeting is a song of joy that begins with the words:
The rest of the song is filled with praise for God’s countercultural acts of “bringing down the powerful,” “lifting up the lowly,” and “filling the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53, NRSV). While there is so much to say about God’s radical kingdom values and God’s relationship with Mary in this song, I’d like to focus on Mary’s relationship with Elizabeth for this reflection.
Take a moment to imagine what it would be like to be Mary—vulnerable, and in an unprecedented circumstance—welcomed into the warm embrace of her older cousin who immediately speaks words of recognition and welcome. It must have felt great to be seen, recognized, and welcomed. Without Elizabeth excitedly welcoming Mary, we may never have heard Mary’s song of praise. The song is inspired by the Holy Spirit and directed towards God, but it is brought about in the context of a loving human relationship.
When I asked the participants in the weekly Bible study that I facilitate at Indwell’s Strathearne Suites about what brings them joy, they all spoke about relationships. One tenant shared that his two children are the greatest source of joy in his life. Another shared that he feels the most joy when he goes with his niece and her children to a local park. A third shared that he is feeling joyful because a staff member recently took him “under her wing” and helped him sort out some medical issues.
For the people of God, joy is not dependent on circumstance; it is not determined by whether our lives are easy and privileged, or filled with struggle and uncertainty. Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit—a gift that is shared amongst us. One way that we can accept and share this gift is by cultivating relationships of welcome, acceptance, and mutual support.
This Advent, we are invited to be people who build relationships of joy. Let us warmly and excitedly welcome those God sends our way this season, like Elizabeth welcomed Mary.