Thursday, December 24, 2009

Midnight Mass 2009

Almost everyone has heard the story of the first performance of Silent Night, the most popular of all Christmas carols. You remember—mice had chewed through the organ bellows, so it had to be played on the guitar that snowy Christmas Eve in Austria.

Unfortunately, Google plays the Grinch when it comes to this story. Apparently, the organ in the village church was so poor in the first place that it was only natural to accompany the carol on a well-tuned guitar rather than on an off-pitch organ.

There never was much of a story behind the most popular English carol, Joy to the World. The lyrics are by one of the greatest of all hymn-writers, Isaac Watts, a Protestant pastor who wrote O God Our Help in Ages Past and 700 other English hymns. The tune we know so well was written after Watts had been dead for many years, by an American composer influenced by Handel’s Messiah.

So why is Joy to the World so well-loved? You can’t say it’s particularly Christmassy: While the first line announces that "The Lord is come," those are the only words that relate to the birth of Jesus. There’s no mention of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the manger or the wise men. In fact, Isaac Watts didn’t even write the song as a Christmas carol.

Yet there’s a good reason why this carol captures the Christmas spirit. The reason is one simple word: joy.

Our Christmas scripture readings are simply brimming with joy. Start with the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light—a light that has shone in their deepest darkness. And what’s the result? Their joy is increased. They rejoice like harvesters hauling in the crop, they jump up and down like victors dividing the spoils of battle.

Perhaps you didn’t notice, but Joy to the World echoes our psalm tonight. “Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad” is pretty close to “let heaven and nature sing.” Even creation is joyful at the coming of Christ!

Tonight’s Gospel, most of all, places joy near the heart of the Christmas message. The angels themselves proclaim this: the birth of the Saviour is good news of great joy.

There’s really no way around it. We are invited to experience joy tonight. Joy that a child has been born for us. Joy that the crushing burden has been lifted off our tired shoulders. Joy at the message of peace that the angels have brought us.

But how easy it is to say this! And how difficult, sometimes, to live with joy, to find joy…

I’m facing a challenge tonight. When I told a friend that I didn’t really know what to say this Christmas, he said “tell us what it means to be joyful.” Tell us what it means for a Christian to experience joy in illness, in worry, in frustration, in unemployment, in disappointment.

Quite correctly, he knew that Christian joy can’t mean having no problems. We all have problems. Quite correctly, he grasped that Christian joy can’t be a feeling—since no-one’s ever suggested that Christ was born in Bethlehem so that we could walk around feeling peachy all the time.

So what is Christian joy, if it’s not just a good feeling? More to the point, how do we find it?

Scripture and tradition offer many answers to these questions, but I'll suggest just three of them tonight.

The first way we find joy at Christmas is just by knowing Christ is here. We’re joyful because we are no longer fearful; and we are no longer fearful because of Christ—Saviour, Redeemer, Healer, and bringer of peace. Christian joy is anything but unfocussed; it’s the fruit of faith and hope in God’s promise, fulfilled in the saving birth of Christ.

Imagine yourself as a child in the emergency room, aching from appendicitis. The school managed to contact your parents, and they arrive at your bedside. The pain is still there, but it’s now secondary to the marvelous, redeeming presence of Mom and Dad. That’s what Christian joy is like.

There’s joy, as Isaac Watts wrote, because the Lord is come.

The second answer is that serving others brings joy, regardless of our good or bad fortune. In the Catechism, joy is listed first among the fruits of charity (n. 1829). As Father Groeschel says, it is “the remedy that always works.”

Why is it that Christmas and charity are so often linked—even in the minds of people who do not know Christ? I think joy and Christmas are inseparable because joy and charity are inseparable. Wasn’t that the lesson that Ebenezer Scrooge learned the hard way?

Serving our neighbour at Christmas is itself an experience of joy. Ask any one of the families that has decided to spend time on Christmas Day or around Christmas helping serve meals to the poor or visiting the sick—and find me one that was disappointed by the experience.

There’s joy then, natural and supernatural, when we ‘prepare Him room’—by serving him in our brothers and sisters.

Finally, we find joy in thanksgiving. How can we celebrate Christmas without thanking God for His many blessings, including the supreme gift of His Son? Grateful hearts are joyful hearts—it’s pretty well automatic.

The third and fourth verses of Joy to the World are less well-known than the first two, but perhaps more important. Isaac Watts says “He comes to make His blessings flow” and “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”

Those blessings, those glories, and those wonders are more powerful than death. By living in thanksgiving we place our sorrows and losses in a scales, and see them far outweighed by joy.

A while back a sailing school established an annual award for bad navigators. The first winner was Christopher Columbus. The announcement read “Poor Chris. He started out not knowing where he was going; when he got there he didn’t know where he was; and when he got back he didn’t know where he’d been.”

No-one should leave church like that at Christmas. We have come to hear the angels’ message of great joy; we are gathered as friends, family, and fellow believers to experience that same joy now; and when we return home, we take with us a joy that can only grow as we share it with others in love and service.

Joy to the world! And joy to each of you: the Lord is come.

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