Luke 1: 39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
I begin by asking us all to take a minute to remember a moment we might have had, like Elizabeth had, when something leaped up in us for joy. Maybe it was a moment of face-on-your-hands, doubled over, a warm whoop-it-up whoosh going from your belly, up your throat, and out your crying eyes, a breathless yet screaming kind of joy. Or at least a tingle up your spine, a catch in your throat, and the eyes going moist? Or even just a surprising strength, a peace and a confidence that sustained you during a time when circumstances would call for anything but joy? Those are all different experiences of the same thing: joy……
For how many of you was that an experience by yourself, on your own? For how many did it happen in relationship, with someone else?
We need to talk about joy. Its deadly serious business. Its like water to the thirsty soul. Go without joy for too long and we die, at least spiritually, if not physically. That’s why C.S. Lewis said that “Joy is the serious businesss of heaven.” Like Mary, we’re on a journey through difficult desert territory, bearing in our deepest selves something of God. And God knows we need the occasional oasis of delight and rest to sustain and refresh us on our dry, difficult desert journey, for we cannot sustain it long on our own.
God made us for joy, even everlasting joy. To be human then is to be a joy junkie. The constant quest for joy explains much of our behavior, even the worst, most destructive, self-defeating kind. That’s what the people who break into cars in this neighborhood are looking for: joy. Too bad for them that the last time they broke into mine, all they found were Mariachi CD’s. But I know what they had in mind: break the car window, get in the car, find something to steal, hock it at the pawn shop, and use the money to buy meth, booze or weed. Those are just some of the many cheap, fleeting, counterfeit shortcuts to joy that we seek elsewhere than in the places where God gives joy. Like all counterfeits, they cost more than they give, and deliver less than they promise. We may be looking for the right thing, but in the wrong way, barking up the wrong tree.
Ironically, in this season of “comfort and joy,” we may be going through anything but comfort and joy. Maybe we’re just crazy hectic busy with all the holiday stuff, along with end of the year stuff. Or maybe tis the season when all the forced, mandatory joy, and everyone else’s joy, reminds us so painfully instead of losses we have suffered, or of relationships that have broken down. I’m probably not alone in having heard people say, “This is my first Christmas without….” Or in saying it.
Where will we find joy in a season of “comfort and joy,” which sometimes mocks all joy? Or how will joy find us? In the same place and the same way that joy found Mary, even though everything was stacked against her. Which brings us to a commercial break. Cue the slide, please. Perhaps you have seen this picture somewhere. http://www.shop.beestill.org/product.sc?productId=74 Anyone know where? A hint: its within earshot of my voice. Its hanging on the wall in the library room. Becky and I gave it to church when we moved here from Shoreview.
Its called “The Windsock Visitation.” The artist is Michael O’Neill McGrath. Say the word “Visitation” to many Protestants and they might think, “Oh, that’s what the pastor does when someone is in the hospital.” I met a pastor who named his sailboat “Visitation,” so that whenever someone called for him at home and he wasn’t there, his wife could say, “Oh, he’s out on visitation.” But here the Visitation refers to the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judah. Or is it the visitation of Jesus to John the Baptist? To the Catholic and Orthodox parts of the church, the Visitation has its own feast day and celebrations, in the spring. Its important to their traditions, because it speaks to the heart of Christmas: the Word of God become flesh in the womb of Mary, and even how the word is still becoming flesh in our lives, how we bear something of God deep within us, too. More and more, the Visitation is becoming important to me.
I first saw this print some years back at the Loyola Center in St. Paul, where I was going at the time for spiritual direction. My first thought upon seeing it was, Hey, that woman on the right is a dead ringer for a personal friend, Claire Traore in Burkina Faso, even down to her beautiful, colorful African clothing. Some of you might remember Claire and her husband, Siaka Traore, the president of the Mennonite churches in Burkina Faso, who have visited us at least twice. They gave us the djembe that you sometimes hear in worship.
Then, from the title, I figured out that these two women were Mary and Elizabeth. But I wondered about the windsock. Why a windsock, like what you’d find at an airport today, in the hill country of Judea two thousand years ago? What’s that about? Gee, why not give them cellphones while you’re at it? Or could the windsock speak somehow of the Holy Spirit, who is often likened in the Bible to the wind? Yes, John’s and Elizabeth’s joy, we read, was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Joy is his thumbprint, his signature trademark.
But here’s the scoop: the windsock is a very important symbol not far from here, in a rough part of North Minneapolis, where there is a community of Catholic sisters living in a big old home, called “The Sisters of Visitation.” Whenever they put the windsock out on one of the pillars of the front porch, that tells children in the neighborhood that they are open to receive them, share treats, give them a safe space from drug and gang-related violence, listen to their troubles and tutor them. And now you know the meaning of the words on the art: “This is a place of delight and rest.” That’s a quote by St. Jane de Chantal, the founder of the Sisters of Visitation some 500 years ago.
Before this commercial break is over, permit me to do some shameless marketing: every time you buy this poster online, the proceeds go to the Sisters of Visitation and their ministry in North Minneapolis. You weren’t really done with all your Christmas shopping, were you?
Now, I wish I could give us a fool-proof ten point step to finding joy. But again, that’s how people lose their homes, their jobs, their health and even their families and wind up in jail or in treatment centers. No, joy can’t be manufactured or controlled. It is a gift of God. In our crazy, chaotic world, its surprising how much joy there already is for all of us. Joy through love, through family, through friendship, through nature, art or beauty. Such joys are God’s gift and calling card to everybody. The difference for the Christian is not that we always get more joy or deserve joy more than others—we don’t—but simply that we recognize God as the source of joy, and open ourselves to him. We believe that joy comes looking for us in the person of Jesus, like he did to John and Elizabeth. I show this artwork, the Windsock Visitation, because it demonstrates two ways that we open ourselves to joy, by which joy finds us.
Which leads to the first point I wish to make about joy. How many persons do you see in this picture? I see five: Mary, Elizabeth, the babies in their womb and God, the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the wind in the windsock. Joy is the soul’s natural response to the presence of God, if, that is, the soul is open and favorably disposed in any way toward God. I didn’t make that up—Elizabeth expressed it best when she told Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that God will do for her what he said.”
Joy, then, is the electric current in the soul to the touch of God, whenever God turns toward a soul and finds it open to him in faith, even if only a crack. Then that which is of God in us rises and dances to greet God coming to us. So if we want joy–and who doesn’t?–then keep ourselves oriented, in faith, hope and love, toward God, as were Elizabeth and Mary.
The same was true even for John, while still a fetus, in Elizabeth’s womb. At first it seems strange that John’s joy would precede his mother’s, while he was still in the womb. What does a fetus know? More than we would expect, we are finding all the time. And the Spirit was with him, too. So, maybe our spiritual journey is not so much one of learning and accumulating new truths, but of remembering the timeless truth of our creation and calling by God, truth that we deny and forget through the trials and traumas of childhood, when we learn how to be hard, fearful, false and defensive. Maybe there’s some truth to that story about the three-year-old girl who stood by the crib of her newborn baby brother and said, “Quick, tell me about God; I’m starting to forget.” That’s why joy always has a poignant, haunting element of recognition, remembering, familiarity.
The second point that The Windsock Visitation illustrates so beautifully is that joy is also a result of our true and loving approach to each other. God does not always, nor usually, feed us joy personally, alone, through a direct personal pipeline from heaven, as I could see from your show of hands earlier. In the Visitation we see a joyful encounter, and a joyful community, a joyful people, as well as joyful persons. Their joy grows with the sharing. Each one’s joy primes the other one’s pump. Not surprising, that’s how the Spirit works. God blesses peoples as well as persons, communities and relationships as well as individuals. And even when we do experience joy on our own, don’t we usually want to share it? To post a link on Facebook to that piece of music that put a tingle up our spine, or to say to anyone nearby, “Hey, come see the sunset with me!” So joy is also a result of our true and loving approach to each other. If we want joy, let’s keep ourselves open and oriented toward others in love and trust.
In closing: God knows how and when to give us joy on our journey, just when we need it, so as to sustain us on our journeys. Like he did for Mary, who was on a journey in the desert, in more ways than one. Mary was open to joy for precisely the reason that Elizabeth described. Elizabeth said, “Blessed is she who believes that God will do for her what he promised.”
That’s the good news for all of us today: Blessed are we who trust God to do what he said he would for us in his word. Such trust does not guarantee joy on a moment’s notice. But it puts us in reach of God’s joy, because such faith puts us in reach of God. Joy is a gift of God, not a reward for our efforts, something under God’s control, not ours. So don’t be surprised when joy comes looking for you and refreshes you for the next step of the journey. Its what God does. Its who God is.