This time of year is Advent in Christianity, the time leading up to Christmas. (Another thing I have always enjoyed about religion: it divides the year into seasons of what you are supposed to think about and feel.) Advent is about joy, peace, hope, and contemplating new freedom, new life. Whether or not you are interested in Jesus, a baby being born is a new beginning.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been talking about the Christmas story. Two weeks ago, we read the story of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, getting told by an angel that she is going to have a child via God. This week, we read the story of Zechariah, who is told by an angel that his wife will have a child, even though they are very old and infertile. That child will become John the Baptist.
During our services, we have a kind of typical opening: John, our minister, gives a talk on a part of the Bible. Then, he sits down and asks us what we are thinking. It makes the service more participatory and less teacher-student. It also gives me a prompt to think about while I’m listening to the sermon, which I enjoy.
As John spoke about Zechariah, who is skeptical of the angel who tells him he’s going to have a son, and our capacity for joy, I thought about last week’s story. Zechariah asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this?” He’s an old guy and this defies the laws of science. (Nevermind–they didn’t have science back then. It defied the laws of life.) The angel tells him “now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words.”
In contrast, when an angel tells Mary that she will bear a child, Mary says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Again, defying the laws of life. The angel “explains” to her that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Mary says “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Then she sings a song about how great God is, how he’s brought down the mighty and filled up the hungry. It’s called the Magnificat and you can read it here. It’s a very interesting reaction from someone who has just been told they will have a baby out of wedlock and without even getting to have sex.
So as John was talking about Zechariah and how Zechariah’s joy is delayed because he doesn’t believe (and how a lot of us can sympathize with Zechariah’s skepticism), I was thinking about how crazy it is that Mary reacts with joy to the news the angel gives her. I don’t necessarily even believe in the Christmas story as a factual story, but as a story, it shows that Mary is pretty remarkable. She gives the angel the thumbs up and gets pregnant, magically. She has to deal with the consequences of that, not the angel. She has to explain to her mother that she is pregnant. She has to tell people it’s God’s baby, not Joseph. And I don’t think people were so different in this place and time that they wouldn’t think Mary was out of her ever-loving mind. Who has a baby with God? What does that even mean? (Sidenote: did she actually get to have sex with God? The Bible glosses over that fact. But Mary’s Magnificat is a pretty happy song.)
Zechariah, on the other hand, might be a freak–a father in old age–but he is about to get something that he wants (we assume). People are going to raise their eyebrows, yes, but they will be happy for him. But Zechariah doesn’t get to tell them. He has to stay quiet.
I realized while we were talking that Mary’s joy is incredibly brave. Imagine if, today, your friend or daughter or cousin or you got randomly pregnant. And instead of being baffled, concerned, or fearful–or maybe in addition to all those things–you were happy. Being happy while unexpectedly pregnant is enough to drive the entire movie Knocked Up–we are continually surprised by the fact that Katherine Heigl decides to have the baby and be happy about it, even though the father isn’t the man of her dreams.
What if, when things seem like they suck for us–when we are given the metaphorical unexpected pregnancy that will threaten our reputation, our relationship, our family’s honor, and our happiness–instead of being confused, angry, and worried (or in addition to being confused, angry and worried), we celebrated? What if we high-fived ourselves for taking on something crazy and even unwanted? What if we smiled? What if we were happy even though other people pursed their lips and shook their heads? What if we were happy even if our moms disapproved and our family name was destroyed?
What if, instead of being bitter and pissy about the fact that I have gotten rejected about a million times from various magazines and journals, I was happy? Not happy because I was looking on the bright side, but happy because I got those rejections?
What if, instead of being worried about the future of my career, I celebrated the uncertainty of the future? What if I gave myself a pat on the back for this uncertainty?
Being joyful in the face of confusion and fear is weird. It’s totally unexpected. It’s hard for me to even imagine. It’s not accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative; it’s having unbridled joy about something that seems like a huge mistake or a massive hurdle, put in your life for no reason.
I’m not very good at having joy about unexpected events, but I’m happy about the fact that an essay I wrote about something sad–a miscarriage–had an impact. I’ve wondered if I should feel guilty about its success–am I exploiting my own sadness, or something? But instead of worrying about it, I’m going to choose to be happy. It was a good thing that I wrote that essay, and good that it got published, and good that it got the kind responses that it did. I have my own private feelings about the miscarriage, too, and I can feel those things and still be happy about what I shared with the world.