Advent 4: duty and joy

Some thoughts on Advent 4 and the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-45)

God asks a great deal of Mary.

He asks her to turn her life upside down for him. And he had presumably selected her because she had the faith to be obedient even to this most demanding of vocations. Either that, or he had already tried many, many other young women and had been turned down because he asked too much…

Mary has obedience in abundance. Her question is not ‘why me?’ but ‘how me?’ ‘How can such a thing be possible?’ And when the angel reassures her that with God, indeed all things are possible, she readily assents. God will make it happen. And she is his vessel, his means to come into the world.  An honour, a privilege.

But our gospel reading today picks up where the obedience leaves off, and tells us what happens next.  Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth – the angel had already told her that Elizabeth, too, was pregnant, against all the odds, and unsurprisingly, Mary seeks her out – the older, wiser, woman in the family, someone she can trust to understand what has happened, and to confide in.  After all, it’s not as if she can talk to just anyone about this pregnancy.

But Mary’s visit to Elizabeth gives her much more than that. In fact, it gives both women much more. The moment when they greet each other – and the babies that they are carrying inside them also greet each other – that is a moment of heaven touching earth.  That is the moment for Mary when duty turns to joy. That is the moment when Mary realises that God has not just asked a great thing of her, he has also given her a great thing.

Through the gift of solidarity with her cousin, through the sharing of a common vocation, a common journey, God has given Mary and Elizabeth real, profound joy, as well as responsibility.

God asks a great deal of us. But he also gives us a great deal.

Our burdens are ours, but none of us is entirely alone in bearing them, even when it seems as though we are. One of the greatest gifts that God gives to us is each other. And it is so often the case that we can only truly find joy, or at least, fulfillment, in our responsibilities when we share those burdens that weigh heavily on us.

‘Take my yoke upon you,’ offers Christ, ‘for my yoke is easy and my burden is light’.  ‘And he shareth in our gladdness, and he feeleth for out sadness’ we are reassured in the enduringly popular Christmas carol, and again, ‘Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me for ever’.

The incarnation is the ultimate coming-alongside of God with his people. What we see here today in Mary and Elizabeth’s joyful meeting is a microcosm of what happens with the coming of Jesus into the world.  Our own solidarity with one another, our own sharing of burdens, and sharing of journeys, our own meeting with one another for worship, is likewise a microcosm of the incarnation.  In this way, our relationship with God does not have to be only about obedience, but can turn to joy.

Mary’s life was turned upside down, because she said yes to God. From the start she accepted that her life would never be the same again. But it was not until she came to Elizabeth that she truly embraced and enjoyed what God had given her – so much so that right after our reading finishes, she bursts into the song that we know as the Magnificat, the ultimate celebration of God’s promise to turn everything upside down and then make us question whether in fact things were really the right way up in the first place.

May the incarnation of Jesus be real this Christmas, in our lives.  May we, in turn, by our solidarity, our common journeys, our care for one another bring the reality of Christ’s presence to those we meet, turning duty into joy, turning ordinary into extraordinary, and turning back the right way up all those things that have been too long topsy turvey in our lives and in the life of the world.




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