26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."
by Jonathan Tran, Ph.D.
Joy is bodily. It gets in our bones and moves us. No wonder it comes with singing and dancing and laughing. In joy, we smile ear to ear. Joy lifts our hands in celebration. Joyfully we move and sway and clap. Like when the beat to Pharrell's song "Happy" gets us on our feet:
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Of course happiness is not quite joy. But it gives us a peek into joy. Joy is whatever happiness is but sustained. While happiness is circumstantial, joy is transcendent. Where happiness is a feeling, joy completes that feeling. Happiness is fleeting but joy brings it home.
When the angel Gabriel first shows up at the beginning of Luke's Gospel, happiness isn't exactly what Mary's feeling. Unmarried and six months pregnant, it's more like fear, anxiety and shame. A young, unmarried woman in that day and age could ill-afford any sense of impropriety, much less this. Mary knew the truth, but others came to their own conclusions. Soon that baby bump would be a mark of shame.
And then Gabriel comes along with good news:
The Lord is with you. (1:28)
You have found favor with God. (1:30)
Your son will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. (1:32)
His kingdom will never end. (1:33)
After the Holy Spirit tells Mary that God has done this, her mood brightens. And when her cousin Elizabeth confirms as much—"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! (1:42)—things really begin to move. Fear turns to faith, anxiety to happiness, and shame to joy. As with Elizabeth's jumping baby, joy overwhelms Mary. Her soul begins to dance, her hands lift to heaven, "My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (1:46-47). All of a sudden she's a room without a roof. The early church will call her Theotokos and through her God will save the world. Others can shade her but she knows the truth. One day the world will too.
Joy is a body. He gets into the beat of the world and changes things. The Son of the Most High gets us on our feet and makes us sing and dance and laugh. Like Gabriel and Elizabeth's baby and Joseph and Mary, ear to ear we smile. We lift our hands as the Spirit moves us and transforms a fearful, anxious and ashamed world to singing and dancing and laughing. Mary has good reason to be joyful. And so do we.
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Jonathan Tran, Ph.D.
Jonathan Tran, Ph.D., is the George W. Baines Chair of Religion and Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology in the College of Arts & Sciences. Dr. Tran is the author of numerous books and articles and his research examines the theological and political implications of human life in language. Along with his family, he has previously served as Faculty Master of the Honors Residential College at Memorial and Alexander Halls.