Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Four: Joy Is the Song We're Given

Sing for joy to God our strength;
  shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
Begin the music, strike the timbrel,    
 play the melodious harp and lyre. (Psalm 81:1-2
Sometimes we look back on the days of the first Christmas with rose-colored glasses, singing about a story-book Bethlehem of peace and quiet beauty.

Or we sigh at the quaint beliefs of a earlier, simpler time, and grit our teeth for the harsh realities of our own angry, deeply-divided era.

But Christ was born in a region torn by conflict, hatred and war from long before his birth to the present day.

He was born to a family driven from home by political pressures, to a people oppressed and derided by a ruthless global empire.
Kodex Egberty, illuminated manuscript, 10th century, Holland

Not long after his birth, a petty local tyrant slaughtered an unknown number of infants in a manic attempt to intimidate and consolidate power.

It all sounds depressingly familiar.

And yes, I know that historians have accused Matthew of inventing the slaughter of innocents, because there’s no other historical record.

Just as there’s no other historical record of the scores of murdered infants whose remains were found beneath a Roman era bathhouse inAshkelon, along the coast of Israel, in 1986.

Or of the tiny skeletons unearthed in Hambledon, England, during excavation of a Roman villa.  

A 1978 study of infanticide by Laila Williamson, an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History, concluded:
Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule. 
Archeological evidence since then continues to reveal a sad story not well recorded by historians: children are too often considered expendable, and their disappearances have rarely been important to anyone beyond their immediate families.  

But it’s Christmas week. And the song we’re given is joy. 

According to Luke’s account, the angel greeting shepherds on the hills near Bethlehem proclaimed: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Then a host of angels burst into song:. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The challenge for Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, first disciples, followers and believers across the centuries, has been the same: what does it mean to fear not, to live in peace, to hold tight to joy, in a world where 132 children, sitting quietly in class, are gunned down by angry jihadists?

In a world where gunmen in pickup trucks can shoot dozens of husbands and fathers, herd 185 women and children onto their trucks, then leave a village in flames?

Where a corrupt mayor can arrange the abduction of 43 students, or order the death of a handful of others he fears might disrupt a speech? 

In a nation where in-school shootings doubled, then tripled, in the space of three short years? 
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
    he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples in his faithfulness.
(Psalm 96:11-13)
The Scream from Ramah, Anker Eli Petersen,
Faroe Islands postage stamp, 2001
The song we’re given is joy.

Sing for joy.

Be glad.


If this story we’re in is the final word, then joy is impossible. A hard-hearted outrage.

If there’s no recourse for those children who have died, if evil wins the day and justice is a lie, then joy has no place, no source, no reason.

We might hope for a few moments of happiness now and then, when our doors are shut tight and the world is locked outside.

Determined indifference might numb the sorrow.

Resolute consumerism might focus our attention enough to keep real thought away.

But joy?

Mary’s song, one of the advent texts for this Sunday, makes clear the foundation of the joy we are called to put into song:
 “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.
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.”
What Mary gave voice to, informed by the Holy Spirit, confirmed by the prophetic word from her cousin Elizabeth and the presence of the miraculous baby taking shape inside her, was this:

This story isn’t over. What God has promised will happen. The reigning order of power and injustice will be overturned. The humble will be lifted up, the hungry will be fed, those who live by spreading fear will be swept aside and peace will become the reality we’ve longed for.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98:7-9)
I’ve mentioned the book by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s I’ve been reading, “The World is Not Ours to Save.” He describes the heavy burden of people of good will who feel that the fate of the earth and its people rests in human hands. We’ve seen how badly that can go: atomic bombs to preserve the peace, “men and women whose good intentions and grand ambitions blind them to the terrible ways they interact with real human beings, including their coworkers and family.”

He describes a world “broken beyond our repair”:
The level of sorrow in the world is staggering, and thanks to modern media, we know all about it. It is natural to read the situation as a challenge and ask how it can be fixed. The promise of our progressive, modern age is that the world is subject to repair, given the right willpower and tools. But this assessment fails to account for the shape of the world’s brokenness.
If this world is broken, and we are the only ones who can fix it, we should probably give up right about now and party our time away, drowning our hopelessness in busyness and distracting screens and momentary pleasures with no respect for past or future. 

But the story isn’t over, and the end isn’t dependent on our own wisdom, creativity, strength or sheer endurance.

The end is restoration – of creation, cities, nations, people. A world set right. A kingdom of beauty, peace, mercy, love, joy.

That’s the promise.

That’s the foundation of Christmas joy.

That's the promise that fuels my days, fills my heart, makes real joy possible.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:5-7)
Yes, there are plenty of people eager to pile on qualifiers: for some, not all. For us, not them. If this, not that.

I read the angels’ words, and sing:
I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.

This is the fourth in a four week Advent series.
Earlier Advent posts on this blog:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

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