Joy to the World

A brief reflection on Luke 2.8-20

Early last week I went to see my physiotherapist. I hobbled into the waiting room and found a seat. Not far behind me was a woman of similar age whose hobble was much the same as mine. As she lowered herself gingerly into her seat, I winced knowingly. “It’s been a long weekend,” I said. “Oh yes,” she replied, “in more ways than one.” As we chatted, we talked first of our backs and commiserated together. But then we spoke of more important things.

She told me about her son. He had received his VCE results and they were not good. “He’s devastated,” she said, “and I just don’t know what to do.” She described her son’s dream to study engineering and of the limited options now open to him. She spoke of his tears, and of the closed door to his bedroom. “I don’t care what he does,” she said almost pleadingly, “He could be a garbage collector for all I care. I just want him to be happy.”

I so get that. As I father, I understand. I have often wondered, when all is stripped away, what do I most long for in the lives of those I love? What do I want for them more than anything else? That they would be happy? Yes. But the deeper question follows: what does it mean to be happy? And does the word ‘happy’ really cover my deepest desire for them?

In the season of Advent, today is the Sunday of joy. “Joy to the world,” we sing as we light that fourth candle. Immediately following the birth of Jesus, an angel appears to shepherds in a field and declares to them, “I am bringing you good news of great joy!” Before long a choir, a multitude of angels fills the night sky. “Glory to God in the highest,” they sing, “and on earth peace.” Is this just a very theatrical way of saying, “Happy Christmas!” or is it more than that? What is this joy the angel trumpets?

It’s evident that whatever this joy is, it has very little to do with the shepherd’s personal happiness. As hired labourers — those who watch other people’s sheep for money — shepherds who work the night shift are near the bottom of the social ladder. It’s not as though pre the birth of Jesus they are poor and sad and post birth they are prosperous and happy. The fact is, after their visit to the stable to see the child, they return to the very same circumstances. Nothing immediate has changed. It’s the same for Mary and Joseph. The shame, fear and uncertainty that coloured their story leading up the birth do not suddenly evaporate. Indeed, following the birth of Jesus they must flee to Egypt for a fear of a king who wants their child dead. They have no choice but to ride off into the night, alone and scared. So much for happy Christmas.

Clearly, this joy the angel speaks of is something very different to the personal pursuit of happiness. It is found in something larger than self-interest or personal wellbeing. For the shepherds in the field and for Mary and Joseph on the run from persecution, this proclamation of joy goes far beyond their own stories. If it is theirs to claim personally, then it’s found in being gathered up in a story much larger than their own. The angel declares to the shepherds, “to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah.” In the birth of Jesus is an invitation to the fullness of life for all humankind. It is in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus — the story of a life lived from beginning to end for the good of the world — that the source of real joy is found.

This joy that we celebrate today is no momentary experience of happiness. It has little to do with brightly wrapped gifts under a tree or the contentment that follows Christmas lunch. It is more than that. Through the birth of a child, this joy marks the beginning of a reorientation of our world toward hope. This reorientation is made possible through the birth of Jesus. For in Christ God steps into our world. It is no longer God over us or out there in some heavenly or cosmic realm. No, in the birth of a child, God is with us. God is birthed in us. Through Christ, the way is now open for all humankind to experience the fullness of life.

What do I most want for those I love? Yes, I want them to be happy. To be honest, I would prefer their lives were free of pain, failure and struggle of any sort, but I am wise enough to know that this is foolishness. For they live in the real world, not some fanciful land of daffodils and smiley faces. So in this real world, I want more than anything that they would discover for their own lives a purpose that is larger than their own self-interest, the possibility of a larger story which gives their own stories meaning and direction. I long that they love well and sacrificially, that they live their lives in a way that leaves the world a better, more compassionate and just place. I long that they would know a joy that infuses and inspires their living and impacts the lives of others.

On this 4th Sunday of Advent, I believe that God our father longs for this in all of us. Whatever our story, whatever our personal circumstances, the good news of great joy is a story into which we are invited. It is a story born in us this Christmas time, a story into which we are born. The joy of this season is a way of being in the world that embodies the love, the peace and the hope of God.

I do wish for you the joy of Christmas. More than that, I pray that you will be gathered up in that joy and that you’ll find the courage to live it in all the days to come.


Image: ‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ by Thomas Cole (1834)

Songs of Advent 8

images-1Just like O Little Town of Bethlehem, the carol Silent Night is so enmeshed with our photoshopped ideas of the birth story, it’s easy to view Christmas as a seasonal and romantic escape from the harsher business of life.  An honest reading of the story, though, makes escape impossible.

Though recorded in a different age, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Silent Night and the 7 o’clock news’, the final track on their 1966 album Parley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, makes a more timeless point.


Songs of Advent 7

In our Advent reflections at Collins Street, we’re listening to the ‘songs’ of those gathered up in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. In the first week it was Mary’s song (1.46-55) and this last Sunday Zechariah’s (1.68-79).

Zechariah’s song ends with a very moving affirmation of the peace of God and its merciful reach into the darkest places of fear and death:

‘By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

I wondered out loud just how much Zechariah understood the truth of his words. As sincere as his declaration was and as passionate his performance, did he really comprehend the extraordinary breadth of God’s purposes in the births of his son John and of Jesus? My suspicion is that Zechariah was as culturally blinkered as we all are.  A devout Jew–deeply formed within a particular culture, story and tradition–Zechariah’s perspective on God, the world, and the nature of peace was limited, even prejudiced by his own context and humanity.

A carol we’ve sung since its advent in the mid 1800s is Phillips Brooks ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’

‘O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.
Above your deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet, in your dark street shining the everlasting light,
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

imagesI confess that when I sing such a song, as sincere as my faith is, I do so with limited understanding. People like me–those for whom Bethlehem is really nothing more than a romanticised venue of still and starry nights–sing with such ignorance of Bethlehem’s reality.

This past Friday afternoon, I stood in Melbourne’s city square by a nativity scene set up for Christmas. On one side of this cut-out stable stood a large crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators with their placards and flags, and on the other side a small group of mostly elderly supporters of Israel with their banners and leaflets. The tension was thick. Amidst the chanting, the accusations and the slogans, I felt deeply sad as I looked on: sad about the passion and pain on both sides of the divide and more acutely aware of my own distant ignorance.

In 2011, three young men came together in Bethlehem to understand better what peace really means in a place of such conflict. They were men of three different faiths, one a Palestinian resident of Bethlehem, one a former Israeli soldier, and the other a Christian Palestinian refugee in Spain returned to his homeland. In a documentary called Little Town of Bethlehem the stories of these young men are told as they struggle to understand and to work together for genuine peace.

As part of the film, an adapted version of the Bethlehem carol is sung in Arabic. We listened to it this past Sunday. While most us us could not understand the words, we could help but feel the song.

Songs of Advent 6

220px-Divinum_mysteriumWe had our very own poet-in-residence at Collins Street this year, Cameron Semmens.  Cameron was wonderful and demonstrated beautifully both the playfulness and power of words.

Today’s Advent song is based on the words of one of the Church’s earliest poets, a Roman by the name of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens.  I reckon with a last name like that Cameron and he could be related. Aurelius was born in Northern Spain in 348. He practiced law with great success and even served time as a provincial governor, but he longed for a more contemplative way of life.  He finally found it in retirement.  He wrote his poetry in Latin.

His poem Corde natus eventually became the English carol Of the Father’s Heart Begotten … all nine stanzas of it!   My dear friend Ron Ham, retired Baptist pastor and member of Collins Street, identifies it as one of the precious hymns of this season that encapsulates for him ‘the astonishing message of Advent.’

Here’s one version of it, with the words to all nine stanzas following.

Of the Father’s heart begotten,
Ere the world from chaos rose,
He is Alpha, from that Fountain
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things,
Yet to come the distant Close,
Evermore and evermore.

By His word was all created
He commanded and ’twas done;
Earth and sky and boundless ocean,
Universe of three in one,
All that sees the moon’s soft radiance,
All that breathes beneath the sun,
Evermore and evermore.

He assumed this mortal body,
Frail and feeble, doomed to die,
That the race from dust created,
Might not perish utterly,
Which the dreadful Law had sentenced
In the depths of hell to lie,
Evermore and evermore.

O how blest that wondrous birthday,
When the Maid the curse retrieved,
Brought to birth mankind’s salvation
By the Holy Ghost conceived,
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer
In her loving arms received,
Evermore and evermore.

Sing, ye heights of heaven, his praises;
Angels and Archangels, sing!
Wheresoe’er ye be, ye faithful,
Let your joyous anthems ring,
Every tongue his name confessing,
Countless voices answering,
Evermore and evermore.

This is he, whom seer and sibyl
Sang in ages long gone by,;
This is he of old revealed
In the page of prophecy;
Lo! he comes the promised Saviour;
Let the world his praises cry!
Evermore and evermore.

Hail! thou Judge of souls departed;
Hail! of all the living King!
On the Father’s right hand throned,
Through his courts thy praises ring,
Till at last for all offences
Righteous judgement thou shalt bring,
Evermore and evermore.

Now let old and young uniting
Chant to thee harmonious lays
Maid and matron hymn thy glory,
Infant lips their anthem raise,
Boys and girls together singing
With pure heart their song of praise,
Evermore and evermore.

Let the storm and summer sunshine,
Gliding stream and sounding shore,
Sea and forest, frost and zephyr,
Day and night their Lord alone;
Let creation join to laud thee
Through the ages evermore,
Evermore and evermore.

Songs of Advent 5

booklet.FH11‘O Holy Night’ (Cantique de Noël) has to be one of the most beautiful songs of the season.  It’s from the poem ‘Minuit, chrétiens’ (Midnight, Christians) written by the Frenchman Placide Cappeau (1808-1877).  Cappeau was the son of a wine merchant who would eventually take up the family business, but his first love was forever poetry. Well educated in art, law and literature, Cappeau was asked by his parish priest to write a poem for Christmas.  It was risky request. Cappeau was a staunch socialist, a republican and strongly anti-clerical in his religion.  He wrote the poem on a stagecoach to Paris.

Cappeau’s words were put to music in 1847 by Adolphe Adam and then a few years later the Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight adapted the poem into the English version we sing today.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Andreana Reale from our 5pm congregation rates ‘O Holy Night’ near the top of her Advent song list:

‘I can’t explain why I love it so much. But when I hear it it makes my heart swell up, in a good way. It did feature on Home Alone, one of my favourite childhood Christmas movies (that I have watched MANY times), so maybe that has something to do with it. It is in the scene where the young hero Kevin is in church and meets the scary man who puts salt on the snow, and realises he’s not so scary after all, and then convinces the old man to reconcile with his family.’ 

Just for you Andreana:

Songs of Advent 4

O-Come_poster_closeYesterday, the first Sunday of Advent, we began the season at Collins Street with that wonderful carol, O Come let us adore him. In the morning we sang it to each other as our call to worship and in the evening as we gathered around the communion table.

Any number of people identify this as their personal ‘song of Advent.’  Stefanie Pearce, one of our deacons, told us why:

My dad was raised in the Catholic church, but abandoned all faith in adulthood, generating many theological debates over dinner. He remained spiritually inclined, however, and for some reason ‘Adeste fideles’ (Oh come all ye faithful) always seemed to touch something within him. I can’t sing it or hear it sung without thinking of him, sentimentally moist eyed, and I wonder what place in his soul it touched. I love the English version too, in its own right: the high, light women’s voices in the chorus, gradually being joined by the altos, and then the deep men’s voices for the final triumphant line of the chorus ‘Oh come let us adore him, Christ the Lord,’ especially when the descant is sung. I love that descant!’

This one’s for you, Stefanie.

Songs of Advent 3

Another take on the story of Mary comes from an old folk carol ‘Gabriel’s Message’. Apparently it originated in Basque, the ancestral language of a deeply religious people spread across northern Spain and southern France.  It’s English version didn’t arrive until the late 19th century.

These are the words:

The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
‘All hail,’ said he, ‘thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favored lady,’ Gloria!

‘For know a blessed Mother thou shalt be,
all generations laud and honor thee,
thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
most highly favored lady,’ Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head,
‘To me be as it pleaseth God,’ she said,
‘my soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name.’
Most highly favored lady, Gloria!

Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ,
was born in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn,
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say,
‘Most highly favored lady,’ Gloria!

What’s fun to me is that two of our deacons at Collins Street, Roz Otzen from the morning congregation and Nigel Smith from 5pm, both name it at the top of their Advent song list. Let’s just say there’s a slight generational difference! So here’s two versions of the same song, one with the choir of Kings College in Cambridge. And the other with Sting. Take your pick!

Songs of Advent 2

Tekeste is originally from the Horn of Africa. We work together at Collins Street. When I asked him what music touches him at Christmas time, his response was almost immediate.  He told me about Alemu Aga, an Ethiopian who composes indigenous music for the church in Ethiopia and Tekeste’s homeland of Eritrea.  Alemu plays a stringed instrument called a beghena and sings in Amharic.

The extract below is taken from a much longer piece of music that tells the Mary story in a very different way.  It’s one Tekeste loves to hear at this time of year. In this segment Mariam, as she is known in Amharic, is visited by the angel Gabriel with the life-changing news that she is to bear a child, a holy child sent by God.

The Songs of Advent

I’ve been gone a while.  Away on writing leave … an introvert’s heaven! The first week away was like gulping at handfuls of cold water, most of it running straight through my fingers. The more I drank the more I understood how thirsty I was. I’m glad to say, too, that I made some good progress on ‘the book’.  Perhaps 2013 will be the year.

Now I’m back on deck, Advent looms.  It’s a great time of year. At Collins Street we’re drawing on what we’ve called the Songs of Advent, the hymns of confession and adoration offered by the witnesses to Jesus’ birth in Luke’s gospel. This Sunday we begin with Mary’s song, otherwise known as the ‘magnificat’ in Luke 1.46-55.

To stay with the theme, we’re also sharing together some of the songs of the season that are significant to us. Music is a powerful thing and its connection to this time of the year can run deep.  It certainly does for me. So I get to go first.

A song that really does it for me is one I only discovered a few years back. As it happens, it blends beautifully with this week’s gospel.  To be honest, I’ve never known what to do with Mary. She’s an enigma to me. And when I listen to the most popular retellings of the birth story I’m none the wiser. She is either deified beyond all recognition or left to play a bit part in a drama that leaves her essentially silent.

It’s why Patty Griffin’s ‘Mary’ was a revelation when I first heard it.  In a very simple way Griffin paints a compelling picture of the relationship between Jesus and his mother, one that began in a manger but grew far beyond it. What the song hints at is the unique role a mother plays in a child’s life, no matter who that child is or becomes.

‘Jesus said, “mother I couldn’t stay another day longer.”
He flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face.
And while the angels are singing praises in a blaze of glory,
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.’

The song provides a glimpse of Mary neither deified nor marginalised. Her role in Jesus’ life didn’t stop in the manger and neither was her mother’s love defined by it. Ever in the background, her finger prints are on every page of Jesus’ story. Deification is completely unnecessary. Her story is sacred enough.