Photo by Cynthia O’Connell

Luke 1:46b-55

Glebe Road United Church, Third Sunday of Advent

Joy. Can you recall time you felt joy? Did you feel it in every part of your body, did it make you want to dance, to shout with glee. Today is known in the Western Christian Church as Gaudete Sunday or rejoice Sunday. It is the day we joyfully anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world. Today we focus on rejoicing. 

I wonder what exactly is joy? Is it a feeling? A state of being? Is it different than happiness? 

Here is a little Bible trivia for you. The word joy is found over 150 times in the Bible. If such words as “joyous” and “joyful” are included, the number comes to over 200.  The word joy chara in our scriptures is derived from the same root for the word grace, charis. This is important as it hints that joy is somehow connected to grace, that is has to with the gift that is God’s unmerited love.

Now jpy is not the same as happiness, though we may use the words interchangeably. There is a difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is a human pursuit of what we define as worthy. Happiness is something that we pursue whether it be in terms of success, career or finances, or through the things we acquire. Joy is different, it has this sense of spontaneity and, this is important, we can’t pursue joy like happiness because it is a gift. 

Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote about the difference between joy and happiness and how joy can persist in even the saddest times. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, Nouwen writes that joy is something deeper. It is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” 

The picture above is of my advent candles at home. You may notice the pink candle, representing joy is a little shorter than the others. This was not intentional. My partner made the holder for me out of some scrap wood. I painted it and labelled each slot with the words hope peace, joy and love then placed the candles in their respective places. It turns out that the hole for the joy candle was a little wider than the others so when I placed the candle in sank in deeper than the others. It seems a fitting representation of what many of us have experienced through the Covid 19 pandemic that the joy candle was a in shorter than the rest. 

I had posted this picture on social media. One friend drew my attention to the shorter candle, remarking with some humour they commented that, “joy was in short supply this year.” They were right joy has been is in short supply lately. Yet the candle is the same height as the rest it just that some of it is hidden below the surface of the holder.  Perhaps that is the metaphor that the weight of this pandemic, or when anxiety fills us, it makes our holes a little wider. Joy has sunk deeper and is hard to see when you look for it. 

Perhaps you are struggling to find joy this year, in a year filled with a sadness and weariness, and too many demands with not enough resources. I have no easy answers or solutions to how you might find it. What I have, what we have as a community of faith are stories that help us navigate life in times of distress. Stories like the one found in Luke, the Magnificat. The story of young woman, a teenager, engaged, poor and is told she is going to be pregnant and not by the man she plans to marry. This is not an ideal situation in her society. This would have devastating consequences for her socially, the risk of being ostracized is a reality for her.

 In Matthews Gospel (1:19) we learn that Joseph had planned to cancel the wedding, to “quietly dismiss her.” And yet… she sings a song of joy: 

My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

She sings a song that is powerful, poetic and political. A song banned over the centuries by regimes because of proclamation that the powerful will be brought down from their thrones. A song that theologian and preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer who would be later be imprisoned and executed by the Nazi regime, said it is a song that,

“is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Every year in the church we re-tell this story where even in unexpected challenging circumstances people rejoiced because they knew of God’s power, Gods promise of reconciliation. And there is joy in that knowledge. 

It is these stories of God’s love and Mary rejoicing that can sustain us when our candles are a little short. And so we continue to sing, at home and together in our hearts, as the gathered people of God in different places and times. We sing an ancient song of joy, a song of power in the face of distress, a song of promise fulfilled, of mercy granted and we rejoice. We rejoice because we know the advent of God’s love is coming, given and gifted in the fragility of a tiny baby. 

It may seem odd, perhaps even forced to speak of rejoicing in times of distress and trial, yet this is what faith compels me to do. To rejoice even in sadness so it might persist and spread to others. So I hold up this candle of joy to you, a little shorter than the rest on the surface but deep below that surface is a wellspring waiting to burst forth in a song of rejoicing of God’s power and mighty deeds. God who raises the lowly and brings down the powerful from their thrones, our saviour in whom rejoice.  Amen. 

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