University Congregational Church
Dec. 16, 2012
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home. (NRSV)
A Christmas tree in a store caught my attention recently. It was decorated with various deep colors: burgundy, blue, and browns. Then, it was covered with iridescent ornaments, which reflected the deeper colors and spread prisms all over the room. You know what I mean by iridescent… at first glance it might look clear or white, but when you put something behind or inside it, it radiates color. When you get close to something iridescent, you can see that it has the hues of every color within it. I thought about iridescence as a metaphor for our lives and about how different we could be if we caught the darker colors of life in this world but used them to spread light and life everywhere we went.
There is a repetitive emotion described in the events of the first Christmas. Before Jesus was born, Elizabeth’s baby “jumped for joy” in her womb when Mary visited them. (Luke 1:44) Later in the story, we’re told that the shepherds heard the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth with “great joy”. (Luke 2:10) We are to receive the news of God coming to us with exuberance!
The story of Jesus’ birth is, of course, not a historical or literal account. It is layered with miraculous conception, angels appearing in dreams, all kinds of folks showing up to honor the new baby. These are symbolic ideas written into a birth narrative to tell the reader that this birth was special and different from other births.
If we look beyond the details of the story at the larger purpose and meaning, we discover that there is an almost universal reaction to the news of this birth… joy! Let me be clear… this joy that is announced is not to be confused with happiness. Joy is something entirely different from happiness.
Happiness is an emotion. Joy is an attitude. Joy is not necessarily based on something positive happening. It is something that lasts. When the happiness about a wonderful meal or a new outfit fades, joy remains.
For you Latin scholars out there, you know that the word “happiness” is derived from the Latin “hap”. “Hap” as in hap-hazard. It refers to circumstances that are happy. I’m happy because I have a nice home, enough food, and great friends. I’m happy because of something.
The Biblical concept of joy is very different. It comes from the Greek word, chara, and means to be exceedingly glad. You can be joyful and unhappy at the same time. Joy can be present in the midst of unhappy circumstances. Joy has to do with the spirit of God present inside of us in a way that gives us internal peace. This inner peace offers us a depth that transcends present circumstance. It means that we handle the difficult things in life without it changing the ultimate whole of who we are. The deep, abiding joy of chara is a sign of spiritual maturity. Happiness is fleeting but joy is true inner contentment.
In preparation for today, I listened this week to those with whom I met. I had an opportunity to listen to conversations about the upcoming holiday and I tried to notice if there was any form of joy expressed, either in word or in emotion. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t sensing much of the inner joy of the season among those I observed. The place I did read about joy was on the flaps of the Christmas cards I received.
Why is this word “joy” so frequent in scripture and so absent in our modern vocabulary? How can we become more like the iridescent ornament, reflecting the depth of color of the present circumstance, but bringing light and joy to life?
Mary sang a song of praise… a joyous expression of her faith: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in Yahweh.” We are told that Mary was perplexed and afraid, and yet she utters this joyous song of praise to God. We’re told that the shepherds were “filled with fear when they heard the great news.” Yet, they responded to the news with “great joy”.
What this indicates is that joy is actually linked to what we would typically label as negative… fear, uncertainty, and even suffering. Ironically, these not-so-pleasant experiences and joy are intimately intertwined. Kahlil Gibran said it this way, “joy and sorrow are inseparable . . . together they come and when one sits alone with you . . remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
To have joy, chara, means that like the iridescent ornament, we take those deeper experiences and emotions and reflect the light of inner peace. John Green in his book “The Fault in Our Stars” writes that “the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.” The existence of difficulties doesn’t affect our inner joy. Joy and sorrow are intimately intertwined.
Another thing to know about joy is that it is contagious. Joy spreads when it is shared. Remember that Mary went to see Elizabeth and it was when the two of them shared the news of God coming to them that Elizabeth’s baby “leapt for joy” and that Mary sang her song of praise. We know this in our modern world today. Joy is contagious.
When I was growing up, my Papa used to conspire with me to try an experiment as we greeted people. We walked down the street and greet a person with a joyous “good morning!” and a smile. The next person we came across, we would bend our heads and grumble, “morning”. The results were amazing! The ones who were greeted with joy responded universally with an affirmation: “it is, isn’t it!” or “it’s a beautiful day!” But the ones we grumbled around didn’t respond at all or said sarcastically, “lovely day to you too”. We found that people responded to our outer expressions regardless of what they might be feeling. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said it this way, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
Joy takes the ordinariness of life and brings cheer to it. Joyous lives catch light and spread joy everywhere.
We find happiness in many things – in children at Christmas, in listening to beautiful music, being surprised by a rainbow, in bathrobe nativity scenes. But have we found true joy in our lives? Can we say that we are like the iridescent ornaments on a tree… taking the deeper mysteries of life and reflecting them with positive hues? Are we living the kind of joy which radiates the love of God? It’s not enough for the angels on our trees to be iridescent reflections. We are called to be those joyous Christmas people, living iridescent lives and sharing the Good News of Jesus’ birth to all!
- Luke 1:26 - 38