A Personal Ode to Joy

Rev. Paula Norbert

“I Believe in God: Ode to Joy”
Synopsis : This week we turn to Luke’s writing which is an account in two acts: the Gospel biography of Jesus and then the story of the early church–the “Jesus community.” Whether you were a Jew or Gentile in those days, deciding to become a part of this illegal early Christian movement could bring punishment for your allegiance. Surely the message in both Luke and Isaiah that the downcast, lowly, and oppressed would rise up is a welcome and inspirational account. Like the Jewish exiled people of Isaiah’s time and like the early Christians, we also sometimes wonder where God is in our suffering. We long to hear the promise that a reason for joyful praise is the good news on the way!

Scripture: Isaiah 57: 14-19, Luke 1: 1-4; 26-56

As we celebrate this third week of Advent, our focus is on joy. Maybe some among us are struggling to find a taste of joy in these challenging times while others may be discovering that joy can be present in the simple experiences of preparing for the holidays, venturing out on a starry night or seeing the lights shine throughout our neighborhoods and towns. Traditionally, the third week of Advent takes “Joy” as its central theme. It’s sometimes called, “Gaudete Sunday” (gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin), and its candle in Advent wreaths is often rose-colored. While Advent is a time of longing and waiting in the shadows for Christ to come, there’s also room for taking some “anticipatory joy” in his coming — much like the moments of joy in this week’s reading from Luke. We must remember that Joy may be found within our lives even within difficult circumstances. Joy is a deeper sense of satisfaction that unfolds as we reflect with gratitude on the blessings of our days and within our faith journey as we move closer to the birth of the Child within our hearts and world this year. Let us pray, O Holy One of stillness and peace, show us the places of joy in our world. Enable each of us to share in the joy of this beautiful season, the joys in the midst of challenges, and the joy of your promise of great love for our broken world. Amen.

Our reading from Isaiah today is one that occurs late in the prophet’s writings as he speaks about the process of rebuilding, rebuilding a community, rebuilding faith and trust in God. In this translation, we hear God call to “remove barriers from my people’s road” and we imagine the struggles that community faced in that time, the barriers that caused such suffering and pain to a people. And, we have been reminded over these months of the ways in which our own nation still has many barriers we must yet take down if true justice and equality is to be shared by all. And so, as the people of this earlier time, we must continue to “survey, survey!” We must continue to tend to the hearts that are crushed. Joy comes in our work, step-by-step, to break down barriers and strength comes in the confidence we may have that God is working alongside us, inviting us to be aware of our own limitations as a community when we may find ourselves going off course, leaving the path that God desires for our broken world. There is much to distract us from the work that yet needs to be done, and in these times, it may be easier to isolate ourselves than to take in the reality that is unfolding right outside our doors. And so, we seek balance as we do need to tend to our own hearts and spirits but as a faith community, we have a responsibility to listen to the Word of God and allow it to guide us, inspire us, and challenge us.

We are living through days where we need to pay attention to the full range of emotions, as we take in both the fear and suffering while working hard to cultivate the faith and hope, the deep joy of this sacred season. Like the community to whom Isaiah wrote, we know we are in a time of mourning for our brothers and sisters, dying each day, from this virus. As we pass each milestone, the numbers can seem so abstract, but the reality of every precious human life lost cannot be ignored it. We are all in need of words of comfort. Like those in exile, we need to look ahead and trust that there will be reasons to praise. God says “For those who mourn, I will create a reason for praise… I will heal them.”

We turn to Luke’s original story this week. The Gospel of Luke is the longest of the four Gospels as it details the events of Jesus’ birth as an important way of understanding who Jesus is. Luke was attempting to share important stories of Jesus’ life so that his message would extend beyond the early followers, so that all might come to see Jesus’ saving presence. To these fledgling new Christian communities, Mary’s Magnificat would have read like a rallying protest speech, calling for justice and putting powerful words in the mouth of a self-proclaimed “servant.” Some in those early communities would have heard their own occupation reflected in that word. Joy–deep human thriving–can happen in the midst of oppression when people are inspired to raise their voice, to raise up to their full height and proclaim their worth.

There is a powerful and inspiring documentary called Following the Ninth, which is a film about the global impact of Beethoven’s final symphony. The film, which was released in mid-2013, has been shown in many cities in the United States and around the globe. (Show Trailer)
Written in 1824, near the end of Beethoven’s life, the Ninth Symphony was composed by a man with little for which to be thankful. Sick, alienated from almost everyone, and completely deaf, Beethoven had never managed to find love, nor create the family he’d always wanted. And yet, despite this, he managed to create an anthem of joy that embraces the transcendence of beauty over suffering. Celebrated to this day for its ability to heal, repair, and bring people together across great divides, the Ninth has become an anthem of liberation and hope that has inspired many around the world:

• At Tiananmen Square in 1989, students played the Ninth Symphony over loudspeakers as the army came in to crush their struggle for freedom.
• In Chile, women living under the Pinochet dictatorship sang the Ninth at torture prisons, where men inside took hope when they heard their voices.
• As the Berlin Wall came down in December 1989, it collapsed to the sound of Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth as an “Ode To Freedom.”
• In Japan each December, the Ninth is performed hundreds of times, often with 10,000 people in the chorus. Following the Ninth gives us insight into the heightened importance of this massive communal Ninth, known as “Daiku,” in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

The beginning of the film features Billy Bragg, a British punk rocker (who sees himself as a “common man” and self-trained musician) who once wrote an alternative translation of the original German choral score for a school teacher to teach the children in her classroom, and it soon became a popular anthem; it even was performed for the Queen. In his words you can hear the call to resist division, to raise our voices, to “furnish every heart with joy and banish all hatred for good.” May these words serve as an inspiration for us too, in this time, and despite all of our sorrows. May we each find our own Ode to Joy.

“See now like a Phoenix rising
from the rubble of the war
hope of ages manifested
peace and freedom evermore.
Brothers, sisters stand together,
raise your voices now as one.
Though by history divided,
reconciled in unison.

Throw off now the chains of ancient
bitterness and enmity.
And in hand let’s walk together
on the path of liberty.
Hark…a new dawn is breaking;
raise your voices now as one.
Though by history divided,
reconciled in unison.

What’s to be then all my brothers,
sisters; what is in your hearts?
Tell me now the hopes you harbour,
What’s the task and where to start.
… Those speak ten million voices;
every word is understood.
Furnish every heart with joy
and banish all hatred for good.”

Trailer, start at 1:28.