The watchword for this fourth Sunday of Advent is “joy,” and from reading this week’s gospel lesson from Luke, it is easy to see why. As we read of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the exchange that takes place between them, we find a scene absolutely overflowing with joy.
The Holy Spirit makes known to Elizabeth that Mary will give birth to a Savior. The excitement is so great that Elizabeth cannot help but shout for joy. Even John the Baptist, still in utero, shares in the celebration. “As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting,” Elizabeth says, “the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Mary, of course, is most overjoyed of all. In response to Elizabeth’s greeting, she breaks into song, telling all about what this fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus will mean.
Mary’s song is important to the gospel story as it sets our expectations for the nature of Jesus’ ministry. But it carries another important insight, too — a lesson about the source of Mary and Elizabeth’s great joy. This joy is intergenerational; it has been long in the making.
The Jesus event has happened, Mary sings, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” God’s saving work is not just long-awaited, but will also be long-lasting, since “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Mary will be remembered as well, in perpetuity. She proclaims that “surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
The expectation, fulfillment and joy contained in this story are so big because they have been cultivated for ages and shared across generations. Again and again the scripture reminds us that God’s story is multi-generational. It is not contained in one episode, or in one lifetime, or even in one generation or era of human history.
Mary and Elizabeth’s joy is bigger than they can contain because it is not theirs alone. It belongs also to countless generations that came before them and to many after them, even our generation. And what cannot be contained must be shared — through exclamation or song or through outbursts of energy like John’s leaping in Elizabeth’s womb.
That same type of joy, an intergenerational joy too big to be contained, is offered to us, too. Life beckons us to draw our joy from a wellspring that is grounded in the past and bubbles forth into the future. Joy, true joy, is more than we can keep to ourselves. There is plenty to be found during these seasons of Advent and Christmas.
So look, this week especially, for the expectation, hope and joy shared between and among people of all ages.
Just recently I watched an elder gentleman delight in playing Santa as children delighted in meeting Santa as everyone else delighted in the children’s joy and wonderment. Something similar and ever more joyous happens when people of all ages team up to light Advent candles, sing the songs of the season and re-enact the Jesus story through our pageants. The miracle is that some joys grow bigger and more exuberant the more they are shared, and especially as they are shared across generations.