What is Joy? (for the 3rd week of Advent)

“Waiting Actively”

Have you had the experience in which you keep looking at a word, and the more you look at it, the less familiar it seems? You look at it, or hear it said out loud, and part of your brain says, “Is that even a word?”

Psychologists call this “semantic satiation”. The theory is the neurons in your brain that have the job of responding to a certain word, after responding over and over again, become desensitized to it, and are temporarily unable to do the job of helping you connect the word to its meaning. So you can look at the word, or hear it, and draw a blank. You just can’t connect meaning to the word.

I have been looking at Christmas cards this week. Cards I have received, and ones I was getting ready to send. A lot of them use the same words over and over again.  I had the experience of semantic satiation, looking at these cards, and realizing the meaning of the words was slipping away.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Best of the Season. Wishing you Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy. How do we get back to the meaning of a word like Joy, which is our advent word for this week?

Last week I talked about how Advent is a time of waiting, preparing for the coming of Jesus. There is an important difference between passive waiting, and active waiting.

We are getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus. A key figure in the nativity story is Mary, waiting to give birth. The image of a pregnant woman is powerful. Anyone who has been where she was, waiting for her child to be born, and anyone who has made the journey with a pregnant woman, knows this is not passive waiting.

A pregnant woman may be encouraged to rest, to take it easy, but that does not mean she is not doing anything. She is actually very busy, doing a lot. Within her body huge work is happening. The woman’s body is preparing itself for giving birth. Her body also continues to nourish and nurture, and guide the development, the growing going on in her womb.

The expectant mother is a perfect image of someone who is actively waiting. Patiently, or impatiently, they are busy, waiting for the day. But this kind of waiting absolutely does not mean sitting around doing nothing, until something happens to you. In this kind of waiting she is an active participant, doing her part in what needs to be done.

When that semantic satiation thing happens inside our head, and we temporarily lose the connection to the meaning of a word, it may help to get out of our heads, and look at things from a different perspective. Not everything is about us.

Our gospel reading this morning from Luke is the beautiful passage often called Mary’s Song, or the Magnificat. The word Magnificat is the Latin version of the word “magnify”, which means “praise”. Luke tells the story of Mary responding to the news she is pregnant, and the child growing in her womb will have a special mission.

Mary sang that her spirit rejoiced in God, her Saviour. To rejoice means to see joy, or to feel joy, to be joyful. Mary knows what the word means. She finds Joy in having a role in God’s work, for doing her part in something so much bigger than her. Mary went on to sing about God is doing.

“God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm;

God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”
It does not get any easier to hear those words about God scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, and sending the rich away empty. That sounds pretty bad for those of us who like our pride, who crave power, and have believed the world’s hypnotic message that it is good to be rich.

Even though it is hard to hear these words, we know they are true. The joy Mary sang about is not to be found in being proud, in wielding power, or being rich. The joy she sang about is not just about us, and our personal accomplishments.

The song-writer Michael Franti said, “ joy is the intersection between the human and the divine, and that’s why at some points, when you experience joy you throw your hands in the air, you laugh, you dance, but at other times you experience joy you cry, and you like release in this other way, and it’s the same thing, and its coming from this place of letting go…”

Mary let go of a lot, to embrace her role in the bigger story. And she knew great joy. A few weeks ago, while talking about the mission of churches, and the future of congregations like ours, I quoted a writer named Frederick Buechner. Perhaps the most famous thing he ever wrote comes from a book called “Wishful Thinking”. He said,

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”


Buechner was talking about the same thing Mary sang about. True joy, true gladness, true meaning in life is found not so much in our own ambitions, plans, desires, but in the larger story of God’s hopes and dreams. What is really needed? How can we be part of giving birth to a world that is more like God imagines for us? How can we more often see God at work in the world?

Another of my favourite writers, the Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton said,

“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything- in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him. It’s impossible.”

Today we gathered and blessed the White Gifts. This week Linda and Kathy, and their helpers will distribute them to families they know, that need help to make Christmas a little more special for their children. This is just a part of the year round work that Linda and Kathy do, on our behalf.

When we act generously, when we reach out beyond ourselves, we can get a glimpse of the world as God would have it be. I find great meaning, and yes, Joy, when I go out and shop for a child I have never met, and try to imagine what might make them smile.

True joy is found at the intersection of the human and the divine. We find Joy where we see God at work. God is everywhere, always, but we do not seem to be able to see that all the time. We are more able to see God when we go beyond passive waiting for something to happen to us, and we are more like Mary, quietly, actively waiting to help goodness and mercy shine through into our world. Amen

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