In the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears to Mary and says, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31). We immediately recognize this as the beginning of Mary’s journey, praising the Lord for the chance to carry the Son of God, but we often forget about her circumstances leading to this.
Mary was an unwed teenager and promised to an older man she didn’t really know, living in Roman-occupied Judea and having little control over her life. And yet, when the news of a pregnancy out of wedlock is added on, she says, “Let it be” (37).
In today’s world, many of us are struggling with joy. I wonder, though, if it’s because we have forgotten what it is. We confuse the concept with happiness or pleasure, but it is neither.
C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book on this subject, opening with the idea that “joy has indeed one characteristic … in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” It doesn’t explain to us what joy is, but it does help us understand that what gives us joy is beyond the idea of what gives us happiness.
I’ve long believed that the best pathway to joy is gratitude. It’s one of the bigger precursors that creates a sense of joy in us. God created us to enjoy each other, it is our essence to enjoy this earth. But often we get so lost in the cacophony of everyday living that we forget what joy can be or how to enjoy our connection with God.
That is where gratitude can help.
Since March 2020, many of us have been forced to shift our focus away from the certainties that we depended on before. We were forced into isolation, whether alone or with our families. Segregated from the rituals that dictated our lives, we had to sit in contemplation of our values and where to move forward.
But often we get so lost in the cacophony of everyday living that we forget what joy can be or how to enjoy our connection with God.
And, in those uncomfortable spaces, I have started to see gratitude in the ordinary spaces. I’ve been thankful for the health of myself and my family, for the friendships I’ve fostered over the past two years through Zoom and socially distanced gatherings, for reunions after vaccinations, tomatoes growing in gardens that become flavorful salsa and sauces, free rapid COVID-19 testing at the mosque down the street, and many other wonderful, beautiful, ordinary parts of life.
Something about the pandemic focused me on details like that. Whether it was an amazing drawing my kids made or a butterfly floating by while outside, we cultivated joy in a different way. But it’s important not to lose sight of that joy as we go about our lives when the pandemic ends—and it will end.
I often think about Mary, the mother of God, and ask about how she endured such a hard time. In the days after Mary received the good news from an angel, she hurried to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was also expecting a child, and her husband Zechariah had fallen silent by his own angelic visit. When Mary arrived, Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit and exclaimed her blessings upon the younger woman, saying, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (45).
In that moment, Mary sung a song of praise, saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (46).
Zechariah is unable to speak. Elizabeth is pregnant. Mary is also pregnant. All of them are living under Roman oppression. And there, when they all have lost agency and control of their lives, they examined themselves and found joy in new and beautiful ways. They have entered their Advent period in life.
Much like the winter storm that freezes the lands and causes all to be still, the waiting they have been forced to experience results in a glorious blossoming of spring, where the flowers bloom more vibrant than before. Zechariah will soon speak. Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptizer. And Mary will give all of humanity the most wonderful gift of all: God made human on Earth.
Blessed be that journey.