Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55, CEB)
As the Christmas advertisements become ever more frequent and the music proclaiming “Joy to the World” looped on the radio stations starts to become a little stale, let the Church be at the forefront of declaring that joy is not the same thing as happiness. Psychologies, a British women’s magazine, describes joy as “more consistent” than happiness and “cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.” This is not to say that joy and happiness are mutually exclusive or that either joy or happiness is somehow bad; it is to say that they draw from different sources, and as this third week of Advent calls us to joy we must be aware that that is not the same thing as telling us to be happy.
Women, in this season fraught with Sexy Santa Helpers imagery, the misuse of the Marian narrative to tell all females they are incomplete without children, and cultural stereotypes that expect a perfect Christmas dinner made by a perfect hostess for everyone who may cross the threshold, may not feel all that happy. (The frustration around the expectations of women are somewhat painfully addressed in a Saturday Night Live skit with Emma Stone.) They may not even feel all that joyful. And that is a real and honest place to be in this Advent season. Happiness is not what the Church should be asking of women; it should be enabling them, however, to experience joy.
This third Sunday is also known as Gaudete Sunday, a name taken from the beginning of the liturgy in the Latin Catholic mass; “gaudete” means “rejoice.” Mary’s hymn (today’s Scripture reading) is known as the Magnificat (from the opening line in Latin, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” “My soul magnifies the Lord”) and the text is pervaded with a sense of joy even in the uncertainty of Mary’s pregnancy and its complications. This Sunday reminds us that this season, women are at the forefront: in Advent we hear of Mary, we hear of Elizabeth, we hear of women in Jesus’ family tree and say in this season, at least, women are valued by the Church. Joy to the women! an Advent devotional proclaims, and indeed this season calls out the joy—the deep wellspring bubbling to the surface happiness—of recognizing the gifts women bring not only to culture but to the Church itself.
Yet not everyone recognizes these gifts, telling women they have no place in Church leadership despite the stories of their grace in ministry like A Day in the Life of a Female Pastor’s Husband. At this time of the holidays, also, not everyone recognizes the need for agency in sharing those gifts and sharing of selves; pressure on both women and men to go to familial structures that may be painful and damaging in the false name of the importance of genetic connection makes many dread the season. There is no joy in pretending happiness at the expense of your own peace and no one who loves you should ever ask you to do that which steals your joy or makes you feel unsafe. As Mary says, “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior;” from her very spirit that animates her comes the ability to rejoice, not from someone else telling her she needs to feel joy. She is now exalted, mindfully part of the story of Christmas, of Christianity itself, because she was given the choice to say yes, I will be part of this.
Joy, like hope and peace, takes work. It takes trust and space and time and choice; it takes an awareness of the self that may be a difficult thing to hold. In a world and a Church that often tells women to smile, reinforcing the idea that women are only as useful as their beauty or cheerfulness, we who claim this faith must advocate for and work toward the reality where joy is what is asked and what is cultivated, where the status of the soul is far more important than a facial expression. This season, find the things that bring you joy, and be unapologetic about claiming them as God’s great gift from Her own wellspring.