‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come!’ Isaac Watts’ classic carol is, I think, my favourite, but only when sung with gusto by people who really believe it is true.
I have often heard it said that ‘joy’ in the Christian sense doesn’t really mean joy as we normally understand it. We’re told it’s not so much happiness, as a sort of deep assurance that God is in control, and everything will eventually work out OK. While the motivation behind this message is probably a compassionate one, driven by the awareness that many of us experience great sorrow in our lives, it seems to me neither a hopeful nor a biblical one.
Look at Mary’s song in Luke 1, often called the Magnificat.
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me –
holy is his name. (Luke 1:46–49 – read the rest here.)
From Luke’s gospel we can deduce that Mary was visiting Elizabeth during her – Mary’s – first trimester, and it looks, from verse 39 as though she may have ‘hurried’ there almost immediately after the angel had left her. Had she told Joseph already? Was this part of his plan of ‘divorcing her quietly’ that she would leave Nazareth and take refuge at her cousin’s house? Or did Mary run away in fear before she had built up the courage to tell her fiancé, maybe just leaving him a note in care of her mother? We can’t tell from the biblical texts. It seems very likely, though, that Mary was in a state of shock, was afraid that she had lost both her reputation and her fiancé, and thus all her hope for the future, and was quite possibly suffering from morning sickness on top of everything else.
And yet she could sing this song of absolute joy. My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour is not the expression of someone who is quietly stoical, reflecting on her deep assurance that God is somehow in control. This is real joy, proper joy, dancing-around-the-kitchen joy. Joy that doesn’t deny its circumstances, but finds help and hope and genuine happiness in the deeper reality that it knows to be true.
Mary had a hard road ahead, but she could face the journey with joy because her Lord had come.
And it is interesting to note that it seems to have been Elizabeth – and the pre-born John – who released the joy in Mary. When the angel gave Mary the news, her response was humble, obedient, but sober. We can imagine her churning with a million emotions as she travelled up into the hills, unsure of her welcome, unsure of anything, until her godly relatives, filled with the spirit, greeted her with joy. Their joy and faith brought forth the joy that was in her, and unleashed her faith-filled song of praise.
Who do you know who needs an Elizabeth this Christmas? To whom could you give the gift of joy, simply by embracing them and speaking words of faith to them? Jesus is good news of great joy to all people, but sometimes we need one another to help us find the joy when our eyes of faith have clouded over.
May you be – or find – an Elizabeth this Christmas. And may God fill you with his joy.