If you were to make a list of the most beloved passages from the Gospel of Luke, the “Infancy Narrative” would definitely make the first cut. You can find it in the first two chapters of Luke, where we read about the conception and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. It’s also where we meet the shepherds and where we are brought to the manger.
These first two chapters give us a glimpse into how St. Luke sees the world. For Luke, it’s a place filled with the grace of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh. It’s a place where our earthly existence is intricately connected to the world to come. And the hallmark of that connection is joy.
For Luke, joy and gladness are always a sign of God’s presence in the world. So he uses these terms carefully and intentionally. He uses them not only to mark joyful moments, like the birth of Jesus or John, but also to mark someone’s transformation as they experience the saving grace of God.
It’s this joy of salvation that runs like a golden thread through all of Luke’s writings. It begins with the birth of Jesus, but Luke presents Jesus’ birth and resurrection as two halves of the good news of salvation. Without the incarnation of the Lord, there can be no resurrection. And without the resurrection, his incarnation wouldn’t mean nearly as much.
Joy Overcoming Fear. Let’s begin with chapter 1. When the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that the elderly Elizabeth will give birth to John, he also tells Zechariah, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (1:14). But the angel says this only after we hear that Zechariah was “troubled” by Gabriel’s presence (1:12).
When we look at Gabriel’s appearance to Mary—the Annunciation—we see many similarities to Zechariah’s story. While Mary is not as cynical as Zechariah, she is every bit as “troubled” (1:29). She knows very well what happens to a young woman who bears a child that doesn’t belong to her husband. In fact, we could see her visit to Elizabeth in the Judean hill country as a way for Mary to escape the hostility and condemnation that her “out of wedlock” pregnancy might have provoked among the people of Nazareth. So a dark cloud appears to hang over Mary’s fiat (1:38).
But when Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth declares that John, the baby in her womb, has just leapt for joy. Luke makes it a point to state that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit at this moment as well. And finally, with Mary’s Magnificat, Luke shows her anxiety at the annunciation vanishing in the face of the joy that the Spirit brings.
The climax to Luke’s infancy narrative comes with the birth of Christ. Once again, joy breaks forth with the angelic announcement—this time to unsuspecting shepherds. But in this case, the joy is not restricted to two individuals. Rather, it is proclaimed publicly to some of the poorest people in the land. And if that’s not enough, an entire angelic choir declares the joyful message from heaven itself: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (2:14).
Joy of the Gospel. As he moves into his account of Jesus’ public ministry, Luke continues to proclaim his joy-filled message. In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus promises joy for those persecuted on his account (6:23). In the parable of the sower and the seed, we see people receiving Jesus’ teaching with joy but then relinquishing that joy soon after in the face of persecution (8:13). The parable of the lost sheep not only describes a shepherd’s joy at finding a missing lamb, but also invites others to rejoice with him in that rescue (15:4-6). And, of course, the father of the prodigal son calls for a huge, joyful celebration at the return of his lost, repentant son (15:32).
It’s not hard to see that for Luke, joy moves away from an individual’s response and toward a shared and communal rejoicing in the good news of salvation. For instance, Zacchaeus receives the joy of God’s mercy in the context of a meal that Jesus has with Zacchaeus, his family, and his guests (19:1-10). In one sense, the story of this redeemed sinner foreshadows the joy of the shared celebration of the Eucharist.
The “Great Joy” of the Resurrection. Luke begins the story of Easter with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday—an event that spills over with rejoicing. We read that the whole multitude of his disciples “began to praise God aloud with joy for all the mighty deeds they had seen” (19:37).
Luke is making a crucial point here. Jesus’ disciples appear to be greeting him as we might cheer a military hero today. But they aren’t rejoicing over any conquests. Rather, they are filled with joy over the healings, the exorcisms, the restoration of life, and even the teachings they have witnessed. Even though they don’t yet fully understand the kind of salvation Jesus is offering, they are rejoicing over the new life that he is making possible.
Finally, joy reaches its fullest measure in Luke’s account of Easter Sunday. The contrast between the disciples’ despondency over Jesus’ death and their rejoicing when they meet the risen Lord couldn’t be greater (24:36-41). Here, Luke returns to the pattern we saw in the infancy narratives, where those encountering the Lord and his angels are at first fearful before being overcome with joy. For those in the upper room, however, Jesus’ appearance produces more than fear; Luke tells us that they are “startled and terrified” (Luke 24:37). But that terror quickly melts into joy once they realize that Jesus is very much alive and not just a ghost.
That joy doesn’t end on Easter. As he brings his Gospel to a close, Luke tells us about Jesus’ ascension. And in his final two verses, he describes how, after the Lord is taken into heaven, the disciples return to Jerusalem “with great joy” as they continually praise God in the Temple (24:52-53). Their joy remains as a constant hallmark of their prayer, their fellowship, and their efforts to spread the “good news of great joy” that Jesus, the Messiah, is risen (2:10).
Joy for the Whole World. If we are looking for guidance on how to live out the joy that began when Jesus was born, Luke gives it to us in his Acts of the Apostles. We first see it in Peter’s speech on Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). Quoting Psalm 16, Peter tells the crowd, and us, that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we too can be “filled” with joy in the “presence” of the Lord (Acts 2:28).
Nothing can squelch the joy of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. When Paul and Barnabas are driven from Antioch in Pisidia for preaching the gospel, they simply shake the dust from their feet and move on. And the new disciples they leave behind are, like them, “filled with joy and the holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). Even after having been severely beaten for their faith, Paul and his companion Silas spend their time in prison, not dwelling on their pain and apparent failure, but “praying and singing hymns to God” (16:25).
Beginning with his story of Christmas, Luke weaves together the many ways that Jesus’ birth and his resurrection have brought joy into this world. For Luke, that joy belongs both to the disciples who knew Jesus and to everyone who follows in their footsteps. The stories of Peter, Paul, and all the believers in the Acts of the Apostles make this clear. The birth of Christ continues to resonate through all time and in every place, “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Even today, the angelic host proclaims, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
Rejoice in the Lord! As we gaze at the child lying in a manger, let’s remember that ancient saying, “The wood of the crib becomes the wood of the cross.” And because the cross leads to the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, we know that the joy of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the angels can reach down to us as well.
Fr. Michael Patella, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he is a professor of New Testament at St. John’s University.