Have you ever wondered why one of the Advent wreath candles is a different color than the others? In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent, to represent joy.
In the early church, Advent was a penitential season, much like the season of Lent. New believers prepared for baptism through spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the promise of Christ’s coming as Emmanuel, God With Us.
One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke. Next week, we will get the story surrounding this song, now known as the Magnificat – that’s Latin for the first word in the song: “magnify”. We’ll hear how Mary sings this song when her relative Elizabeth greets her and calls her ‘blessed.’ This week on the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy, let’s focus on the song itself:
And Mary said,
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.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:46-55
Mary’s song echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.
When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of the Christ, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story.
Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.
Just last week, we heard Elizabeth’s son, John, proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ (Mark 1:3”). And in today’s gospel reading, we hear that same message. Get ready. One is coming who is greater. In fact, he is already standing among you. It is no accident that we hear this same announcement two Sundays in a row, just as we get to hear Mary’s story this week and next. God is doing a new thing, and that bears repeating over and over.
But how did Mary find it in herself to rejoice, under the circumstances?
Peter Slofstra writes, “Her fiancé was thinking divorce. Her family was thinking disown. Her community was thinking stone. Her situation could not have been more difficult.
“Her status could not have been humbler. An ordinary teenage girl—no resumé, no royal lineage, no special skills. A teenage girl sent away to live with a relative in another city like so many pregnant teens. How could she say, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God [my Savior]”?
Maybe you can relate to Mary’s situation – not necessarily because you are pregnant, but because you find yourself in circumstances beyond your control. This pandemic has affected each of us, and some of us were already struggling before we had to limit our contact with others.
We’ve been separated from people we love for months, and that feels even more painful at this time of year, when we depend on being together to renew those bonds of love. We’re discovering new ways to stay connected, but it just isn’t the same. And we miss the familiar. Instead of joy, we feel sadness, maybe even anger that we can’t control what’s happening around us.
Our world has been turned upside down, and while it’s a different kind of reversal than Mary experienced, we have to wonder how on earth she could express joy in the middle of so much disruption. We find the answer right here in her song.
First, Mary believed that God would do what God promised to do. You have to remember that her people had been longing for the child growing in her belly for centuries. They had nothing more to go on than a promise that, one day, Messiah would come. Mary believed that promise. She trusted God. She remained faithful to God, even when there was no evidence that she would ever see the promise fulfilled. And that’s what God really wants from us: our faithfulness.
Second, she knew and named God as “Savior.” Not just her own personal savior, but savior of her people, and through them, the world. She knew hope, and her hope gave no room to despair. The Light of the Word was growing inside her, and that Light was getting ready to drive all darkness away.
Finally, she recognized that God had paid attention to her, that God was “mindful” of her. The God of the universe not only promised to save humankind through Messiah, that same God was her Savior, and knew her by name, cared for her, favored her. She had come to the realization that God loved her.
Her joy found its source in the realization that what Israel had hoped for centuries would happen was happening in her. She knew God loved her, and would act – not only on her behalf, but on behalf of all people everywhere. The promise of ages was about to be kept, and she was the carrier of it all. How could she not sing for joy? Mary’s trust in God banished all fear.
As we frantically try to get ready for Christmas, we may find that fear and doubt come creeping in. If we’re just scraping by, how can we afford to buy presents for those we love? If we get sick, or we lose people we love, when stress rises and hope fades, how can we pretend to be cheerful?
How can we sing “Joy to the World” when our personal worlds are crumbling around us? Where is God when we really need him?
This is where Mary’s Magnificat intersects with Elizabeth’s story and Hannah’s prophetic song. It’s where John the Baptizer, leaping in his mother’s womb 30 years before he will say “Prepare the way of the Lord – he is coming and is already standing among you” connects us to the joy of knowing this important truth: God is here. God is with us. God favors us. God loves us. Emmanuel is here and now to save us from our despair, to open our hearts to joy.
Theologian Karl Barth says that “true discipleship [is] simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ.” (Burgess, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 72.)
To be a disciple is no longer to look backward or forward or even deep into our own hearts, but rather to look only at Christ. In pointing to him alone, our identity finally becomes clear. It isn’t who we are, but whose we are that matters.
Once we grasp this truth, that we belong to God as followers of Jesus Christ, our job is to magnify the Lord, just as Mary did. Our mission is simple: pointing people to Jesus, so they can experience the same grace we have experienced, so they can choose to follow Jesus with us.
As we make our hearts ready on this Gaudete Sunday, our joy may be mixed with disappointment. Mary reminds us that God has done mighty things, and is continuing that amazing work right under our noses, right now, right here. And yet, like John, we may find it difficult to recognize God at work in the midst of all the trouble that swirls around us. Even so, both Mary and John point us to Jesus, the source of our joy.
Debie Thomas writes, “… John the Baptist is the patron saint of spiritual joy. He was still a fetus when he first leapt at the presence of Mary and Jesus. When it was time for him to “decrease” so that the Messiah could “increase,” he did so willingly, saying, “My joy is now complete.” But as far as we know, his life on this earth ended in darkness and unknowing.”
Or maybe John understood something about joy that can help us in our own “darkness and unknowing.” Maybe he understood that joy is what happens when Christ breaks through our assumptions about God and invites us to walk with God.
Maybe John realized that joy comes from seeing how God’s work is so much bigger than the circumstances of our own lives. Maybe John knew joy, because he finally understood that Messiah would not bring in a kingdom of power over others, but would rule in love to serve others.
Both John and Mary show us the way to joy through our questions and our doubts. Later in the story, John will wonder if he’d got it wrong about Jesus being Messiah. Mary wondered how on earth God would make her the mother of the Christ child. But they both said ‘Yes’ – even in the midst of their questions – and the joy they experienced magnified God. Whatever binds us, stalls us, or holds us captive, may we, too, say yes to God and be released for joy. And may our joy, like Mary’s and John’s, point people to Jesus.
Advent 3B 12/13/2020
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