Today we lit a candle of joy. And in our Christmas pageant video, we heard our children struggling to talk about an event that is both weird and wonderful. In some ways, it is a hard story to tell, since the ending has a way of overshadowing the beginning. We know that the story ends with the joyful birth of Jesus the Messiah. So, all the characters who get us there seem far too small, too humble to possibly be involved in this astonishing story. Every attempt at explaining what is happening seems too prosaic to really capture what’s going on, when the infinity of God becomes finite in the form of a baby. Perhaps that’s why we hand the job of the Christmas story to children. We know that they are definitely too small for the task, so it seems appropriate that they tell this extraordinary story for us.
The irony is that one of the characters in the real story was little more than a child herself: Mary. Jewish women were expected to start having babies as soon as they were able, so it’s possible Mary was just 14 or 15 when she got pregnant. Just a few years older than some of the girls in our video. And that makes it even more surprising when we hear the words that Mary speaks when she expresses her joy at having been chosen to carry God’s child. Just after meeting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary proclaims her joy through the famous words of the Magnificat. This young woman starts where we would expect: with wonder that such a big task could be given to a humble young woman. But then she says things we don’t expect from any teenager. She starts sounding like an Old Testament prophet. She goes on for several lines talking about how through her child the oppressed will be freed, the rich will fall, the poor will rise. God will remember the promises made long ago to Abraham.
It is a lovely speech, but as an expression of a young woman’s joy, it sounds utterly wrong. When people experience joy, they rarely get more articulate. If anything, joy comes with a loss of words. Think of the times in your life when you have experienced joy. Perhaps it was during a long run, when your endorphins were pumping and you reached the top of a hill, or the end of a race. Or maybe it was in a hospital delivery room when you were handed your newborn infant. A lot of tears are shed in maternity wards. Laughter and tears seem to go together when people experience joy, cradling a new life in one’s arms. But people rarely break out into long speeches. Most of us are tongue tied when we experience joy.
Childbirth is a good example of how joy appears. It is an odd emotion. It seems to hit us by surprise, yet it often comes when we receive something that we have hoped for. All mothers hope their children will be born healthy, yet they dissolve into tears of joy when they hold their child for the first time. In sports, every athlete wants to win the game, and may dream of being the one who scores the winning goal or touchdown. But that doesn’t stop them from being overwhelmed with joy when it happens. With joy, we are surprised when we get exactly what we hoped for. Why is that?
Joy never comes when you walk across the finish line, confident you will win. Joy comes when you are suddenly aware of the real possibility of defeat, yet triumph comes anyway. In childbirth, joy comes in the midst of incredible pain. How could something so beautiful as this tiny child emerge from an experience so huge? Why isn’t this child ten times as big, that’s what it felt like coming out! In sports, the athlete who scores the winning goal knows that the game could have easily gone the other way. The Olympic sprinter’s body is screaming in pain as they finish a race and see the final time on the scoreboard. Like the tearful actor who wins an Academy award, right after she had convinced herself she was going to lose.
Joy comes when we become simultaneously aware of vast opposites- it’s more than our usual frame of reference can handle. Pain and delight coexist in a way they don’t the rest of the time. Opposites come together, woven into the same experience when we experience joy. The most famous piece of art devoted to joy is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which ends with the “Ode of Joy.” The piece itself is a study in opposites. Beethoven had lost most of his hearing. He hadn’t produced a new symphony in ten years. He decided to break the rules and put a choral song into a symphony, something no major composer had ever done. The symphony’s premiere was on May 7, 1824 in Vienna. Beethoven can barely hear anything, but he wants to conduct the huge orchestra and choir anyway. The real conductor quietly tells his musicians to ignore Beethoven and to pay attention to him for tempo. The performance begins with Beethoven on stage, his back to the audience. He lifts his hands and starts the symphony.
When it ends, the audience erupts. They are ecstatic. The joy Beethoven had written in his music has become real in the seats. But Beethoven is oblivious. He can’t hear the clapping and shouting. One of the singers has to walk over and turn him around. And then he sees. A symphony, written in silence, has become a sensation, now considered the greatest piece of music ever written. And facing that crowd, crusty old Beethoven cries, tears of joy. Joy gives us a taste of how God experiences the world. For God, life is always a mix of delight and disappointment, pain and ecstasy, tragedy and triumph. God sees too much, and can ignore nothing. For God, all of the wonder always comes with all of the pain. When we experience joy, we get a glimpse of the holy order, the sacred experience. It is more than we can usually handle, so we are at a loss for words. Tears and laughter mingle together, we are a joyful mess.
And maybe that is why, when Mary expresses her joy at being chosen as the mother of God’s child, that Luke gives her words of awareness far beyond her years. She is at once aware of all her smallness, but also the greatness of what is happening. Like a prophet, she is given God’s view of life, the promise that the oppressed will rise up, the promises of old will be kept, that justice will become a reality. She is given a taste of God’s vision, one of hope and peace for all of us.
And when she does give birth six months later, her tears of joy are given voice by a host of angels. They sing out those wonderful words , “Glory to God in the highest heaven, peace on Earth for all humanity.” The large and the small, the past and the future, all come together in the experience of joy. May we, this Christmas time, experience some measure of that joy, that taste of God’s way of knowing. Let us get a glimpse of that sacred reality, even for a few moments, as we lose our words, but find our meaning.
(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/08/arts/music/beethoven-ninth-symphony-classical-music.html  https://blog.oup.com/2012/05/beethovens-ninth-symphony-premieres/