United Thank Offering

Embracing Joy with Gratitude

December 1, 2021
United Thank Offering

By Heather L. Melton, staff officer for the United Thank Offering

When I was growing up, Mary, the mother of God, was held up as an archetype of the perfect woman in the church I attended, revered for her obedience to God, dedication to Jesus, and overall servanthood. This way of describing Mary, with her worth being through her motherhood or others, has always been a struggle for me. I’ve been thinking about Mary as we approach Advent. I’ve looked up icons, Holy Land sites, and how long it would have taken Mary and Joseph to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. What I’ve come to appreciate in all this searching and reading is how amazingly vulnerable Mary was.

As many of you know, I’m a certified facilitator in Brené Brown’s work, and one of the key principles is that vulnerability is an act of courage. Vulnerability requires us to show up and be seen in places that draw criticism or even struggle. I’ve come to appreciate that practicing vulnerability takes tenacity and determination. It also takes faith, for me, at least. And as hard as it is to be willing to be vulnerable, I also find that when I do it, my life is fuller. This year, I’ve seen Mary for the first time as something beyond a necessary footnote in the story of the incarnation, but rather as an icon for vulnerability.

During Advent, we’ll hear a lot about Mary as a vessel for the incarnation. In 431 the Council of Ephesus deemed her the “Theotokos,” or God-Bearer, but focusing on just that moment of her story lets us elevate her to the divine and potentially overlook that she was fully human with free will and the ability to make choices. Mary was also a person of a particular moment. We know that life for women in those days was challenging, and purity laws only would have increased the strain she would have experienced as an unwed, pregnant woman. 

Mary is someone who chose to be very brave and vulnerable because of her faith. She chose discomfort over comfort. There is no doubt that Mary was the talk of Nazareth, but she held firm to her faith and values and continued on the path set before her. It must have felt overwhelming at times. She must have wanted to hide away, and yet it’s clear she continued to fully be a part of her community.

After Jesus is born, there’s a line in the gospel about Mary “treasuring these things in her heart.” This reminds me of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my work on “The Daring Way,” which is to push back against “foreboding joy.” Foreboding joy is something that many of us do without noticing that we’re doing it. Brown talks about it as that moment when you realize that everything is pretty great, but then you come up with all the ways it could be destroyed. 

For example, when someone looks at a new baby with their heart full of joy, in the next second they might start thinking about all the terrible things that could happen to that baby. I’m really good at foreboding joy—I can plan out doomsday scenarios really fast, so when I first read about this phenomenon and identified with it, I was shocked to learn that when we interrupt the opportunity to embrace joy, we begin to numb our brain’s ability to identify and feel feelings. So how do we stop foreboding joy? According to Brown, we practice gratitude. We treasure these things in our heart. 

Mary is a reminder to live in the moment, to be fully vulnerable and full of joy, both of which are hard things for many of us to do. Many of us know the Christmas song, “Mary did you know?” which is like the anthem for foreboding joy, ironically written to press the action onto someone whom the Gospel clearly wants us to see as able to stay in the moment and practice gratitude as she treasures the moment in her heart. I’d like to think that even if Mary did know, or simply had an inkling of the events to come, that she would give thanks for the moment instead of worrying about what was to come. It takes tenacity to stay present to joy, and we know that Mary was tenacious. 

We need to remember, especially this year, that joy is part of the gift that is given to us at Christmas. We must follow Mary’s lead and embrace joy, treasure it in our hearts, give thanks for it. This Advent, I hope you will look for ways to embrace the gift of joy that comes with the season and stay present to it by practicing gratitude. If you feel like you are starting to rehearse potential tragedies or annoyances, practice gratitude and re-center on the joy. 

Holidays can be bittersweet, especially remembering those we’ve lost over the last year. Embracing joy does not mean that we can’t feel sadness or loss, but it means that gratitude can help us not let one feeling overwhelm the other. We can feel two feelings at the same time, without either being wrong. Gratitude can acknowledge that both feelings are true and important. We’ve been trained to forebode joy, minimize our feelings, and keep our vulnerable hearts safe. 

But here’s the thing: Christmas is a reminder that God is fully invested in us living more authentic lives, and authenticity requires vulnerability, and vulnerability takes courage and tenacity. We know this because God showed up as a tiny baby, completely vulnerable and dependent upon others at time when being a baby was especially challenging. God reminds us that love is a vulnerable act, as is joy and being present in the moment.

I hope this Christmas you will stay present to joy, practice vulnerability and gratitude with those you love and those in your community. I hope you will find things to treasure in your heart and give thanks for, just like Mary. I hope you won’t worry too much about what’s to come but find ways to stay present to the beautiful things happening all around you, from a favorite carol to a snowflake, to a beautiful sunrise. I hope you find signs that remind you how loved you are this Christmas and that you’ll welcome the joy that Mary felt in Bethlehem so very long ago with the same hope and vulnerability and courage.

The Rev. Cn.
Heather Melton

Staff Officer for the United Thank Offering

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