ISAIAH 61:1-4,8-11 (NIV) - The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion - to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
"For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity. In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the LORD has blessed."
I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.
Luke 1:47-55 - My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."
SERMON: "The Joy of The Season"
If Latin was still used at Mass, the first word would have been in today's liturgy "Gaudete", or "rejoice". The word is sprinkled throughout today's readings: in the first reading from Isaiah, the prophet proclaims that God has sent him to bring "glad tidings to the poor" and "I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul". The psalm of the day is taken from Mary's Magnificat, in which she exclaims "My soul rejoices in my God, my spirit finds joy in God my Saviour". The second reading from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians begins with the words "Rejoice always".
These readings have their basis in the Hebrew language, which has more words for joy and rejoicing than any other language and this from a language known for having few words. In the Old Testament, 13 Hebrew roots, found in 27 different words, are used primarily for some aspect of joy or joyful participation in religious worship.
1) Hebrew religious ritual proclaims God as the source of joy.
2) In contrast to the rituals of other faiths of the East, Israelite worship was essentially a joyous proclamation and celebration.
3) The good Israelite regarded the act of thanking God as the supreme joy of his life.
4) As noted in our readings, pure joy is joy in God as both its source and object, like a circle: God gives joy to us and we return it back to God. The Old Testament is a book of joy! The New Testament is a book of Good News! This is God's will for us to be joyful, to pray continuously and to give God thanks in all circumstances.
There is a story told about a man from Louisville, Kentucky, who had to travel to St. Louis on business. This was years ago when Christians still kept Sunday as a very special day. For this man, "keeping the Sabbath" meant not riding the trains on Sunday. Thus, after he finished up his business late Saturday night, he had to stay over in St. Louis until the following Monday morning. On Sunday morning, he left the hotel looking for a place to worship. The streets were quite deserted, but finally he saw a policeman and asked him for directions to the nearest Protestant church. The stranger thanked the policeman for the information and was about to walk off when he turned and asked the policeman: "Why have you recommended that particular church? There must be several churches nearby that you could have recommended." The policeman smiled and replied: "I'm not a church man myself, but the people who come out of that church are the happiest looking church-people in St. Louis. I thought that would be the kind of church you would like to attend."
One thing many people have forgotten in their Christian pilgrimage is the duty to be joyful. Maybe one of the reasons that Jesus used a little child as the sole embodiment of the kingdom of God is the innate joyfulness of children.
One writer tells of her trepidation at seeing the slums of Bombay. The poverty was overwhelming and hygiene all but lacking. Nonetheless, the air was filled with the laughter of children at play.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross speaks movingly of an even worse situation. Visiting a children's barracks in one of the German death camps after the Second World War, she had expected to see evidence of horror. Instead, the walls were covered with drawings of butterflies, a universal symbol of joy.
For those of us who are adults, one of the things that make Christmas so joyful is seeing the wide-eyed expressions of wonder on little faces. Children know about joy. Somehow we adults seem to lose that awe and wonder somewhere along the road to grownuphood.
There's a story I read to which some of you may be able to relate about a woman's remembrances of her grandmother, Gagi. At the time of her grandfather's death, Gagi was 90 years of age, and had been married for over 50 years. Gagi felt the loss deeply. The central focus had been taken from her life, and she retreated from the world, entering into an extended period of mourning. Her grieving lasted nearly five years, and during that time, her granddaughter visited her every week or two.
One day, she visited Gagi expecting to find her in her usual state of quietness. Instead, she found her sitting in her wheelchair beaming. When she didn't comment quickly enough about the obvious change in her demeanour, Gagi confronted her: "Don't you want to know why I'm so happy? Aren't you even curious?" She went on to explain: "Last night I got an answer. I finally know why God took my husband and left me behind to live without him. Your grandfather knew that the secret of life is love, and he lived it every day. He had become unconditional love in action. I have known about unconditional love, but I haven't fully lived it. That's why he got to go first, and I had to stay behind. All this time I thought I was being punished for something, but last night I found out that I was left behind as a gift from God. He let me stay so that I too could turn my life into love. You see, you can't learn the lesson after you die. Love has to be lived here on earth. Once you leave, it's too late. So I was given the gift of life so that I can learn to live love here and now."
On one of her subsequent visits, Gagi told her of something that had happened to her that day. "This morning, your uncle was upset and angry with me over something I had done. I didn't even flinch. I received his anger, wrapped it in love and returned it with joy." Her eyes twinkled as she added, "It was even kind of fun, and his anger dissolved."
Though age continued on its course, Gagi's life was vigorously renewed. In the last days of her life, the granddaughter visited her often in the hospital. As she walked toward her room one day, the nurse on duty looked into her eyes and said, "Your grandmother is a very special lady, you know...she's a light." Yes, love and joy lit up her life and she became a light for others until the end.
The nurse in the story speaks of Gagi as a light. In John's gospel, when our Lord receives news of John the Baptist's death, he comments to his disciples: "This man was a light, consuming and revealing, but you wished to rejoice exceedingly for a while in his presence."
That one verse has stayed with me for many years and I have tried to live it to the best of my ability.
If we were to take Gagi's theory to heart, we would realize that obviously we're not ready to go yet either. We are still "works-in-progress". I know for myself, I've had close encounters with bad accidents. When I was six years old, I was hit in the back of the head with a house brick which has left a small indentation in my head. (Some of my "friends" say it did a lot more damage than that.) And then I fell 3 metres off a roof into a rubble pile. In my 20’s I was in a car roll over and was thrown out the back window of a moving car – my injury was scratches from landing in a rose garden!! Accident prone some may say, but God was looking after me!
At this time of year, we need to let joy into our hearts. If your heart is aching this Advent season for any reason: the loss of love in a marriage, the memory of someone you love who is now with God, concern about a teenage child, concerns about your health, don't let despair defeat you. If you have recently lost a loved one and that person could come back and stand before you right now, they wouldn't tell you to continue to grieve for them. They would tell you: "I am at peace; you be at peace also. That is my wish for you." If something stands in the way of joy, let it go.
One of the things which I have seen stand in the way of joy is people taking themselves or what they do too seriously. We need to laugh at ourselves, because others will be more than willing to do so for us. When I believe someone is being too serious, I will often joke with them in the hope that laughter will bring them back to reality. We are eminently laughable at - I know that I am - and what we do is just a job or an appointed position, something that in the big picture is not worth getting upset about with another person and something which could be taken away in the twinkling of an eye.
Enjoy life, relish every moment, for we know not the day nor the hour.
Find some way this special season to defeat the blues. Consider doing something for shut-ins who have no one to care for them. Do something positive, something heart-warming, something that will bring someone else joy. For joy has a way of boomeranging and giving the person who gives it more joy than the one who receives it. I read recently that we ought to "practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty".
In just under 2 weeks, we celebrate the second most important feast in the Church's liturgical year after Easter. It is a day of rejoicing and of "joy to the world". Love came down at Christmas, as one seasonal song goes, and with it came joy, the ability for us to overcome sin and sadness, because our Lord loved us enough to become one like us. As in the chorus of a song, "Rejoice and be glad. Blessed are you, holy are you. Yours is the kingdom of God."
May joy be yours this Christmas season.