Sermon St. Peter’s Cathedral Sunday 11 December Evensong 6pm

“…. the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you tidings of great joy for all the people:”   (Lk.2:10-11) NRSV

Today as we continue our journey through Advent we both rejoice that we have reached our midpoint, and we also reflect on the joy which the world experienced at the birth of Jesus.

And so our third Sunday in Advent is often referred to as “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoice Sunday”. The candle we light in our Advent wreath is pink, because rose is a liturgical colour for joy. We are reminded of the “tidings of great joy” that the angel brought to the shepherds proclaiming the birth of Christ (Lk. 2:20) and the wise men who “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” when they saw the star in the east. (Matt.2:10).

 We often use the terms joy and happiness interchangeably, but here we have something much more profound than a response of happiness. Joy is a response of delight to God’s infinite love for us. Happiness and joy can seem to be the same thing, but they can be quite difference. What God promises us is not happiness, but joy. God wants our joy to be full, as Jesus says in John 15;11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Joy is inseparably connected to Christmas and to the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. The long awaited Messiah had finally appeared, but he was not the kind of warrior Messiah they wanted or expected. No doubt some of the Jews were deeply disappointed, let alone amazed when they finally recognized that their Messiah had come to earth in the form of a tiny baby whose parents came from the small town of Nazareth.

And it was to the shepherds, the outcasts of society, to whom the angel first brought the good news, and that with great joy, sometime later, the magi who were wise enough to discern Herod’s evil plan, rejoiced with exceeding great joy when the saw the star that would lead to the manger.

But prior to that, there was the plight of the heavily pregnant young woman and her husband, far from home and with nowhere warm to stay, giving birth to the Christ Child in the warmth of an animals stall with all its humbleness and simplicity. It is hard to contemplate that scene, (whatever its origin), singing Silent Night or Away in a Manger without tapping into that deep sense of joy which comes from experiencing that sense of delight in God’ greatest delights, and that expression of God’s infinite Love, not just for his beloved Son, but for each of his children, which is beyond our human comprehension.

So how do we respond to Christ’s coming?

It is interesting to note that the greeting on most of the Christmas cards you see for sale is “Merry Christmas”. There are a few cards which say “Happy Christmas” but most which use happy are even more secular and say “Happy holidays”.

This got me thinking about that word “merry”. It’s not a word we use very often in normal speech. So I looked up its origin in association with Christmas. Apparently it was first recorded when Bp. John Fisher, in a letter to Henry V111’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, wished him a Merry Christmas in London in 1534.

Just over 300 years later Charles Dickens took up that greeting in his noel “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, and it has been appearing on Christmas Cards ever since.

There is nothing wrong with wishing people a happy or a merry Christmas of course, although it is interesting to note that our recently deceased monarch Queen Elizabeth 11 always ended her Christmas speech to the Commonwealth with wishing people a “Happy Christmas” because she didn’t like the idea of encouraging people to get too merry and shall we say, dishevelled, as they celebrated the holy season.

Happiness and merriness may be terms  quite appropriate for our own celebrations, but returning to the reason for the Christmas celebration we see that it is joy that is transforming. It is joy that is the lens through which we see hope and purpose in life.

And so we turn our focus once more to Mary. Last weekend I spoke of her courage in trusting God’s faithfulness to God’s promise, and about her first instinctive visit (after the annunciation), to her cousin Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, was 6 months pregnant at the time. We need to remember that she too was told by Gabriel that she was to have an extraordinary birth. In fact, her husband Zechariah had been made dumb until the child’s birth because he did not believe the words of the angel’s message, so it must have been quite a frustrating journey for Elizabeth.

So came together two women, both carrying children, both joyous that God had miraculously intervened in their lives – both empty enough of themselves, to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

It must have been a special moment when Mary came to speak with her cousin. The Gospel of St. Luke tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting the child leapt within her womb (Lk.1:41) and a few verses later, Elizabeth herself says “as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting the child in my womb leapt for joy.” (Lk.1:44)

Elizabeth responds with the words “Blessed are you among women”, and in response to being called blessed, Mary burst forth into praise that issued from the very depths of this blessedness and joy.

Mary could not restrain the joy that bubbled up inside her, and uttered the song of praise that we know so well as the Magnificat, and we sing each Sunday night at Evensong.

“My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden…..”

The Venerable Bede English Saint and doctor of the Church of the 17th century wrote this about the Magnificat:

“Mary said: my soul glorifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my saviour. The Lord has exalted me with a great and unheard of gift, which cannot be explained in any words, and can scarcely be understood by the deepest feelings of the heart. And so I offer up all the strength of my soul in thanksgiving and praise. In my joy I pour out all my life, all my feeling, all my understanding in contemplating the greatness of him who is without end.”

When we sing the Magnificat we should remember that it is Mary’s song of joy. It is much, much more than a song of happiness. Rather it is a song of joy as she celebrates what the Almighty has done in taking seriously the status of a lowly woman, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry and remaining faithful to God’s people Abraham, and his seed for ever!

We can’t always be happy, not even at Christmas, but the joy of Christmas can sustain us through all the events of our lives as we realise the depth an extent of God’s love for each of us.

Let us pray.

Come, long-expected Jesus.
Excite in us a joy like Mary’s joy, responsive to the angel’s words;

That we may seek God’s will and serve our beloved Lord with gladness, singing and love. Amen