The Joy of Two Women.
[Advent 3 ~ Joy]
Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20; Luke 1: 39 – 56
There was a mediaeval king who regularly used the advice of a wise man. This sage was summoned to the king’s presence. The monarch asked him how to get rid of his anxiety and depression, and how he might be really happy, for he was sick in body and mind. The sage replied ‘There is but one cure for the king. Your majesty must sleep one night in the shirt of a happy man.’
Messengers were despatched throughout the kingdom to search for such a person. But everyone who was approached had some cause for misery, something that robbed them of true and complete happiness. At last they found a man – a poor beggar – who sat smiling by the roadside and, when they asked him if he was really happy and had no sorrows, he confessed that he was a truly happy man. Then they told him what they wanted. The king must sleep one night in the shirt of a happy person. They had been given a large sum of money to procure such a shirt. Would he sell them his shirt that the king might wear it? The beggar burst into uncontrollable laughter and replied, ‘I am sorry I cannot help the king. I haven’t a shirt on my back.’ [Quotes & Anecdotes, A Castle (1979) p. 150.]
Is it possible to have nothing and still have everything?
Happiness is the art of making a bouquet of those flowers that are within reach. (Bob Goddard; Q&A B3) There lies a great truth. Unhappiness, or rather discontent, lies in always wanting to make a bouquet with flowers you don’t have.
We light the pink Joy candle on this third Sunday in Advent. Our texts speak of joy arising from the hope engendered by the good news of the Christ-child: hope that is based on the past actions of God’s faithfulness and God’s promise to establish peace. God is the source of blessing. God’s blessing gives us joy. Hence Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Simeon, Anne and the shepherds are joyous.
What is joy? Firstly let us acknowledge that happiness and joy are closely related. Discussions on Christian spirituality over the past 100 years have led to a false distinction attributing joy to a Christian experience and happiness to any event. Such a distinction makes joy superior to the relative shallowness of happiness. I’m not convinced by this distinction. I do see that we may use happiness to describe the feelings aroused by events and such happiness will fade with the fading of the memory of that event. I do understand that there is a way of making sense of life that leads to joy even when our lives don’t seem so great. But happiness and joy slide together. What is important is to recognise that both joy and happiness depend on the foundations of our life and how we see life.
I personally came to experience joy through faith in God. I think it works like this. The other evening I went up to my study area. It is on the first floor landing at the top of the staircase. High windows surround my study space. I have lots of light but I don’t see any houses. I only can see the sky. That evening it had a mottled golden glow. It was beautiful. I wanted to see more. I went outside into the driveway and from there I see the expanse of the mottled, golden hue sprawling across the evening sky. I felt joy arising within me. The beauty I saw reminded me of the Creator. I have often been struck with a quiet gentle joy when the rays of the sun gently kiss the clouds causing them to break into a bright smile. The simple beauty of God’s creation in its many moods often fills me with joy. We have a year-old Bougainvillea in our year old new home. It is filled with bright red flowers, which have dainty white centres. Each time I look at it the joy wells up. Kindnesses shared, a smile, a welcome, a good story brings joy to the fore. Sometimes I laugh or smile or tears appear with the joy. I see God everywhere even in the most ordinary of things. Indeed it is good to be alive in God’s world. Yes, I have my sadnesses. Yes, the Church, the world and the rising ‘tribalism’ in our society fed by fear and prejudice each deeply sadden me, but in it all I know that this is God’s world. That is why my joy remains.
Frans Josef Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, said; When I think upon my God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap from my pen; and since God has given me a cheerful heart, it will be pardoned me that I serve Him with a cheerful spirit. [Q&A B3, p.149] It appears that some of Haydn’s teachers found his happiness too much to take.
When I hear how God has blessed another I have a special joy. Their growth in the faith and the fruits of that growth fill me with joy. No wonder our Bible readings are full of joy.
Zephaniah writes [3:14]:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
Isaiah writes [12: 2-4]:
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
I tend to use happiness to describe a feeling of pleasure as a result of an event, and joy as something that comes from within me, because deep down I believe in God and God has saved me, rescued me, given my life meaning, saved me from my wretched selfishness and given my life direction. Joy, for me, comes from the peace I have in the foundation of my being – God in Christ Jesus.
I therefore can understand Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting being a moment of great joy. Two women meet. Both are pregnant. Both have miraculous pregnancies. Elizabeth, a barren woman we are told, is now pregnant with a special child. Mary, a young unmarried woman, is mysteriously pregnant with God’s anointed. Of course our text has been crafted. A lengthy encounter reduced to a few poetic pithy sentences, which carry so much meaning, does not detract from the truth of the text. Mary goes to see Elizabeth because she has heard of her pregnancy and imagines that Elizabeth would understand hers. Both women know that God’s blessing rests upon them in a special way. They each see the blessing in the other. They recognise God’s handiwork. As a result they are together full of joy. They recognise in the other God’s blessing. They are full of joy. There is great joy when you encounter another human who shares their God moment with you. You are one with them. You sense God is with you both. This is the basis of true joy. I firmly understand that the Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise to God – represents a great truth.
In Mary and Elizabeth’s time men dominated the scene, controlled the lives of their women, children and servants. In the nativity stories this is changed. The men are in the background. We just know Joseph is there and supportive, but we are told anything more about him. Zechariah is struck dumb. Only after the birth of John when Elizabeth names the boy, John, does Zechariah speak. This female leadership is unexpected. In the nativity stories the women take centre stage. Yes they are pregnant, but it is more than this. For instance, it is usually the male who names the child, but in each case Elizabeth and Mary name their child. Normally the angels of God approach the males. In this instance the women have been approached. The birth of the Lord of this world places women centre stage. Normally they would have played a secondary role. Is this the dawning of God’s liberating reversal of society? Do these events around the birth of these two children herald the dawn of the new order in God’s kingdom? I think so!
So much depends upon the lens through which you look at life. Our values and beliefs are essential to our perception of reality. Sadly if you see the glass half empty rather than half full then that will negatively colour our perception.
For me the knowledge that this is God’s world, that this world is good to live in, that the persons I encounter are God’s creation, helps me to see ‘the glass half full’ so to speak. My outlook on life is completely coloured by the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Even in my sadness I am joyful, because God has accepted me through Christ Jesus and he is in me. So let us sing W C Dix’s song of joy, “As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold, as with joy they hailed its light”, and let their joy be ours.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 16/12/2018