Joy is My Name

Poor Zachariah. He was cranky one day at work—not enough coffee—and he just wanted to get his job done. His hands held a stick aflame, ready to burn incense in the temple. He was interrupted by an angel—they tend to hang out there—this one was talking crazy, the whole thing surreal. One sarcastic retort and he was doomed to nine months of silence—no voice from the time he left the temple to the day he named his son, John.

William Blake engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti

What was it like for this father? He was an old man who had long since gave up hope for an heir to see his pregnant wife. In his silence, he remembered the angel’s words:

He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the LORD. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the LORD their God. And he will go on before the LORD, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the LORD.

Luke 1:14-18

I imagine the joy he had the day he first held his son! The words of William Blake’s Infant Joy come to mind:

I have no name 
I am but two days old.— 
What shall I call thee?
I happy am 
Joy is my name,— 
Sweet joy befall thee!

Pretty joy!
Sweet joy but two days old,
Sweet joy I call thee; 
Thou dost smile. 
I sing the while 
Sweet joy befall thee. 

It is different for us dads. I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first child, a daughter. Of course I was excited and eager to meet this little one. But she was not inside me, pushing my organs aside, making room for herself to grow. She didn’t widen my hips or make me tired or make me gain weight (though I did). My wife felt her kicks and prods a long time before I was even able too. There were ways that this child was still abstract to me. I worried as a dad that I just wasn’t feeling enough and wondered how I could love this stranger.

Then labor and delivery. I spent the night at the hospital listening to our baby’s heartbeat quicken and slow with every contraction, comforting and encouraging where I could, but feeling helpless and useless as my wife pushed out a tiny human. Then I held her, and was instantly smitten. I knew that I would do anything and everything for this child. My heart grew. My joy was full.

An incident at work left Zechariah speechless for three-quarters of a year. He watched, he waited, he regretted his stupid reply to God’s messenger. Then the day came. He held his little one. He fell in love. The child was joy and delight to him. He wondered at the angel’s promise and the man his little boy would become.

On the 8th day, they came to circumcise him. Elizabeth explained to Rabbi that the child’s name would be John. They silenced her and went instead to Zechariah who wrote on a tablet, “He is to be called John.” Suddenly Zechariah’s words returned and he began praising God:


Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
 salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
 to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
     the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
 to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Luke 1:68-79

A father’s hope and joy—the frustrating months of silence swallowed up in praise.

The Advent promise is that our tears will be turned to joy, that shalom awaits us, that the Day of the Lord is near and our hope is secure.

And yet, like Zechariah it is still abstract to us. We are still here. Our bodies have not changed to make room. Our day of joy is coming soon.

Sweet joy befall thee

Unnoticed and Unknown to Men of Power

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, her ancient cousin—long past the years of child bearing—she came out to meet her. Elizabeth deepest shame had been that she was barren, but when Mary approached she saw her cousin’s glow, the swell of her abdomen, and delight in her eyes. As Mary approached Elizabeth was momentarily breathless. She put her hand on her belly. The baby had given her a spirited kicked. 

She called to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored that you would come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in me leapt with joy. Blessed is the one who believed God would fulfill his promise to her! (Luke 1:41-44)”

This is the setting of Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, where she glories in the Lord for her goodness to her and the coming justice her baby boy would usher in.

Priest and poet, Malcolm Guite imagines the scene, two women on the edge of things, unnoticed and unknown to men of power:

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

This poem is taken from Malcom Guite’s blog: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/a-sonnet-for-the-feast-of-the-visitation/

Two women overlooked. The one who couldn’t conceive (Elizabeth), the one who shouldn’t (unwed teenager mum, Mary).The “too young” and the “past her prime.” It is it any wonder that Mary’s song lifts up the poor, the humble, and the hungry, over against the powerful, the wealthy, rulers of the age? Even before Mary unleashed her melody—a song which recalled Hannah (1 Sam 1), another overlooked woman—God was already at work lifting up the forgotten, the overlooked, the outcast.

When the Triune God set his redemptive plan in motion, he didn’t come to the powerful, the strong, or the patriarchy. He came to an unwed teen girl blessing her older cousin also. Both would have boys who would call God’s people to repentance and point to the coming reign of God. One of their boys would be God himself.

Yes, an Angel had visited Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah. The proud man couldn’t accept the angel’s news. Not like Mary. Not like Elizabeth. Favored of heaven, outcast on the earth, Prophets who bring the best in us to birth. 

Our Spirits Rejoice With God Our Savior

Nothing captures Advent Joy the way that Mary’s song does:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
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.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary’s song bursts. It exudes praise. She recognizes the significance of what God was going to do through her baby boy. Every generation will be blessed because of Mary’s participation in God’s redemption and the things her Son will do.

The song goes on:

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,
    just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 50-55)

She describes the mercy of God to those who fear (revere)him and how God scatters the proud, brings down rulers and lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty.

This is radically inclusive and subversive!

A had a seminary professor who used to pastor an ex-pat church in the Philippines where it was illegal to read the Magnificat in public, for fear that it would incite riot and revolution. These words are politically charged. The proud are scattered and the rich go away empty. The humble are lifted up while the rulers are deposed. Mary challenges the whole system centuries before the classic Liberals defied Monarchy, the Communists decried Capitalism and the Anarchists denied institutional authority. If you do not hear a poignant critique of the way things are in Mary’s words, you are over-spiritualizing her words and dismissing them. There is raw power here. This is a rallying call!

Unfortunately, even the poets sometimes miss the point, focusing instead on Mary’s high praise while glossing over the phrases that challenge the status quo. Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper published this poem in Sojourners in 2008. I think it gets at the joyful and subversive hope of Mary:

Mary’s Song: A Poem

Dark times
Regime change.
“How are we gonna make it?”
“How are we gonna live?”
Tomorrow?

Fear for breakfast
Trembling for brunch
Despair for dinner.

Dark thick air
Full of fumes
Can’t breathe.

Thick over the man on the street
With feet sticking out of his shoes.
Shoes wrapped in muslin.
It does not cover him
He lay cocked to one side.
In a fetal position.
He was a baby once.
Once — he cried and cuddled and coo-ed
Now he knows evil of this world.
His eyes have been baptized in the warped world of war.
They stare –- numb.
Dead eyes.
Murdered by drugs and guns and blood
Murdered by full metal jackets
Innocent eyes stolen
Stolen, too, the man’s soul.
Now
He lays in a fetal position
Waiting…

And the woman on the train
Across the aisle from me.
Her hand stretches forth
Rests on the carriage
Rocking a sleeping baby.
Innocent in all things.
Deserving of nothing
Deserving of all things
Baby lay waiting
In a fetal position
Baby waits to breathe above 125th street.
Fumes hover in her neighborhood
Where bus depots pepper the map.
Cancer fumes
Asthma fumes
Fumes that shape life
Limit life
Steal life
But for now she sleeps
And her momma rocks her carriage.

And the GM
And the Hedgefund
And the free-market giants
Three of them
Jolly and Green
They lay now
Tears trickle from baptized eyes
Dead eyes
They stare –- numb
Ransacked by green greed and time catching up
Now … nothing –- or at least it feels like nothing.
They have what feels like nothing.
And for fear of feeling fear
The giants lay feeling nothing.

Darkness hovers over the deep
And we wait.

We watch with dead eyes
Eyes that have seen too much.
Eyes that have known too much evil.
Redeem! Lord, Redeem!

Watch for the light.
Wait for the light.
It pierces darkness
And unfurls curled bodies
It covers twisted limbs.
It replaces fumes with blankets of breath
Mixed with love and sacrifice.

Mary watched and waited
The powerless, harassed young girl –- 13.
Barely a foot in the world
On the run
Chased down by power
Death surrounded her
Wrapped in the stench of King Herod’s dying babies

But

Into the darkness Mary sang!

“My soul doth magnify the Lord!
My soul doth magnify the Lord!
The one more mighty than darkness has done great things!”

For resting in her belly
Turning in her belly
Pressing on her belly
Light was being born

“God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,”
Mary says!
“God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly,”
Mary proclaims!

And the man with feet peeking from his shoes will be lifted up.
He will stand up!
And the baby covered in fumes will be lifted up.
She will stand up! Up!
And the green giants laying with dead eyes — yes, even they will be lifted up!
They will stand!
Blessed are they now, for they are ready to be lifted up.
They will lock hands
With their sisters and brothers and …

Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord.
Our souls will magnify the Lord …
… together!
And our spirits will rejoice in God our savior!

Amen.

Poem originally published by Sojourners, 12-17-2008 https://sojo.net/articles/marys-song-poem

The homeless, the mother and asthmatic child riding the train, the greedy green giants which lost everything in an economic downturn. All humble or humbled, awaiting the day when they will be raised up. Jesus is coming. My soul magnifies the Lord!

The Joyful Wait of Glory

Our journey through Advent is nearly at its end. Tomorrow is the 4th Sunday of Advent and already Christmas Eve! The light has grown, both with the warm Advent candlelight and the incremental lengthening days. There is still darkness all around, but yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. 

How are you feeling right now? Excited? Hopeful? Warm? Stressed out? Anxious? Lonely? The holidays bring in their wake a mix of emotions. It seems there is always too much of something, and far too little of another thing.  And beyond the holiday cheer,  a heaviness hangs in the air.

We are cynical enough that we expect political corruption in our leaders, but we wonder how far it all goes. We worry about taxes, environmental destruction, systemic discrimination, and policies that break up immigrant families (to deter illegal crossings). We are sickened by the constant barrage of sexual assault news. Closer to home, we hurt when we feel disconnected and distant from the ones we love. We feel the sting of rejection when the ones we thought loved us don’t really love us the way we long. We feel the trauma of past wounds. We worry about making ends meet, our deteriorating health, and about our kids’ emotional intelligence and social development. All of this makes us feel heavy.

The promise of joy seems like an end to the heaviness. We long for the day which will be only light and warmth. Then, we will glory in the incredible lightness of being. 

Hebrews 12:1-2 is a familiar passage promising us strength for the journey:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus is our exemplar. Like Him, we may cast aside every hindrance in pursuit of what is ahead. Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, endured the cross for the joy set before Him.  He was glorified for it. He sits now at God’s right hand.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Weight of Glory. The name is clever but redundant. In Hebrew, the word for glory, כָּבוֹד, means just that: weight and heaviness. Certainly, it has the connotation of honor and praise, presences, radiance and all of that, but underneath these lofty notions is substance and consequence. God and Jesus are forces to be reckoned with.

We see the weight of glory illustrated in 1 Samuel 4 when the ark of God is captured. When Eli heard that ark was captured, he collapsed and died under his own weight, that is his own glory (1 Sam 4:18). His daughter-in-law named her son Ichabod because the glory of the Lord departed Israel (the weight of God no longer rested on the Ark’s mercy seat, 1 Sam 4:21). Too much weight had been given to leaders and strategy (and even the magic ark), Israel did not give to YHWH his proper due. They did not follow God wholeheartedly, they gave weight to these other things. With the weight of God departed, the ark was taken away (V. Philips Long first alerted me to this weighty wordplay in Samuel).

The Joy of the Lord we await is not weightlessness. We await the day when all the stuff we face, will have their proper weight. Anxieties, worries, wounds will not weigh us down the way they do now. We won’t be heavy laden with past guilt, present danger, or our anxiety about our future. We will no longer be burdened by sin or tangled in the bramble. We will finally give weight to what matters most.

We will see the Lord exalted, high and lifted up, the train of his robe filling the temple (Isaiah 6:1).  God’s glory will be revealed. And all the struggle and the pain, the scorning and shame, will no longer matter on the day when Christ comes again to reign. It will be worth the wait when we see the substantial, powerful, radiant and weighty, Glory of God. For the joy set before us, we joyfully await the glory.

Joy to the World!

When Advent began, the Christian blogosphere was a buzz, as always, with grumpy liturgists warning us away from jumping to quickly to yuletide cheer. We were cautioned against carols  and mirth, too much cookies and eggnog. Advent, after all, is about preparing. We hope, we long, we eagerly anticipate the coming of the Lord. In the liminal glow of Advent candle light, we are inviting to make our crooked roads straight and prepare the way of the Lord. A lot of the posts here too, inhabit this waiting space.

But now, two-and-a-half weeks in on a year with a short Advent season, the chorus of cranky Adventists have been drowned out by the holiday cheer. We lit the pink candle this past Sunday, signifying joy, if not the full satisfaction and fulfillment of Christmas joy, at least a foretaste of the joy that is to come.  Perhaps now, we can start singing Joy to the World. And when we do, we will discover it is not a Christmas carol at all, it is Advent all the way down.

According to the fount of all knowledge (Wikipedia) as of the late 20th Century, Joy to the World was the most published Christian hymn in North America. But the 18th’s Century hymn writer, Isaac Watts did not write this hymn with Christmas in mind. There is no angelic chorus or Christmas crèche. No little town of Bethlehem and no shepherds on the hillside.

Joy to World was Watt’s paraphrase of the second half of Psalm 98. Watt’s wrote his hymn in a Christological, Messianic key, but he didn’t envision Jesus’ nativity. This hymn instead images Christ’s final coming when he  will reign over all creation:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love. (The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, “Psalm 98, part 2,” Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998).

We sing this as a Christmas carol, mostly because of the way the first verse celebrates that the Lord has come. And yet, the rest of the hymn envisions eschaton. Then the Savior will reign and all sin and sorrow will cease. His blessing will flow into every crack and cranny where the curse is found. The Kingdom of God come in full! Righteousness, and wonder and love!

Despite it’s clearly celebratory tone, the hymn inhabits the liminal, in-between space of Advent. The world it describes, is not yet our world. It is the telos we are moving toward, that which all creation is groaning for.

The Lord has come, and will come. All hardship and affliction will cease and all creation will join in the song of praise: Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy. JAll the boys and girls: joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me. 

(Image: Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917), Joy of All Who Sorrow, Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

Waiting: Joy (Advent Week 3)

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete¹

I.

“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”
These words penned
in prison—
written by
an old man,
in a cell
on death row.
He was almost
blind but
still hoped
he’d taste
His release.

II.

“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”
Though the
The dark
is long and dusk
devours days,
Behold, a
light shines

the Sun’s rays—
a joyful rage,
against the
dying of
the night.

III.

“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”
The Theotokos
aching and sore,
her hips hurt.
And back.
She’s so tired now,
she lowers herself down
on the couch,
rests her hand
on her belly,
she smiles and asks:
How Long, O Lord?

IV.

One day soon:
kings will topple
from their thrones,
the poor will rise,
the hungry feast,
and broken mend;
whole and healthy,
the lame leap,
blind see,
and every
prisoner will
be free.
“Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!”


[1] The Introit to the Latin Mass for the Third Week in Advent, Gaudete Sunday,  is the Latin translation of Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord Always, I will say it again: Rejoice!”  This week is all about joy, the rose candle a joyful reprieve to the season’s penitential purple.