We finally return to the lectionary after three Sundays of special services. Even if we had been following the Revised Common Lectionary, we would feel like we’re just now getting to Advent after weeks of apocalypse and wild-eyed John the Baptist. Now we get Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45, and I’m using Safiyah Fosua’s poem “Finding Joy in Unexpected Places” as the second reading.

Where are we?

“Finding Joy” jumps off from Mary to tell the whole story of Jesus, kind of like the song “Mary Did You Know,” only in the third person. This reading doesn’t have a particular context so much as it is the big context for the scripture reading. Of course, the poem gathers parts of the Jesus story from all the gospels, so you’ll have to read all four of them to learn more.

Luke 1:39-45 comes right after the angel’s visit to tell Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. Six months before that story, the same angel had appeared to the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth to announce that Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist.

What’s going on here?

Both of these births merited an angelic announcement because they were supernatural. Mary had not yet been married, and Elizabeth was too old to have children. Hear echoes in these stories of Sarah the mother of Isaac and Hannah the mother of Samuel. Also see Karl Jacobson’s parallel reading of Mary’s song of praise and Hannah’s.

Elizabeth praises Mary for believing the Lord’s message to her (v. 45). At this point, Elizabeth’s husband is still mute as a result of his refusal to believe what the angel had told him. He only regains his voice when John the Baptist is born.

In all the gospels, John the Baptist is the first one to recognize Jesus for who he is. Here he sets the record for youngest prophet.

David Lose points out that Mary’s song of praise (which we’ll use as an affirmation of faith) describes God’s actions in the past tense, as things that are already real in the world. Time is as screwy in the gospels as it is in the rest of human experience. How often do we find ourselves waiting for something that has already happened, or celebrating the reality of something that hasn’t quite taken place yet?

Some of us will have questions this season about all the supernatural goings-on, such as women getting pregnant when they can’t. Bob Eldan reminds us that the point isn’t the supernatural events (and certainly not the status of any particular womb), it’s God’s ability to do the unexpected and our openness to participate and recognize that.

Lauren Winner suggests that Mary may have “hurried” to Elizabeth’s house not because she wanted to celebrate but because she was aware of the danger of being a pregnant woman without the social protections of marriage. She asks how our churches respond to pregnant women, especially those who don’t wear wedding rings.

So what?

I’m aware that this will be the first sermon after the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT (our choir cantata filled last Sunday’s service). There’s something in these readings – the joy of expecting the birth of Jesus and the challenging reality of the rest of Jesus’ story – that will resonate in all kinds of ways with that news. I want to speak joy in the midst of that sorrow, and all the sorrows of our lives, in a way that doesn’t trivialize the tragedy. That goes for all our tragedies, whether or not Newtown is the biggest object on our radar by Sunday.

I’ve always loved John the Baptist, and I especially love the image of him jumping around in the womb to greet the tiny bundle of cells that would be his cousin and redeemer. I love the way Elizabeth responds, with words that would become part of the Ave Maria, to the sense of that joy within her. There’s so much about Advent that speaks of something new growing up within us, something that is part of us and yet foreign to us.

We reflected on Mary’s visit from Gabriel on the first Sunday of Advent, and now we’re only a little farther down the road. When we first met Mary, we were invited to prepare, to make room, to hope in what God would do. Now there’s not much time left for preparing. If you haven’t done your Christmas shopping, it’s going to be very busy at the store. You’re choosing what goodies will get baked and what will have to wait until next year. The relatives are on their way, if not sitting in your living room. Now it’s time to stop and notice the joy that is already dwelling within you, to celebrate what God has already done, to see by the light that already breaks forth in the darkness.