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Memories are fundamental in our lives. On this day in 1960, having been ordained a subdeacon in Ushaw College, I had to sing the epistle: ‘Rejoice always in the Lord. Again I say rejoice’. It was a terrifying ordeal, singing in Latin, as was the norm then, in the splendid College chapel full of priests and students, whose dubious pleasure came from listening to people like me not endowed with Pavarotti’s gifts. Now there are no subdeacons and very little Latin, and no Ushaw seminary. This memory provides a powerful evocation of what has changed in the last 60 years. But what has remained the same? What has got better? Where are we now?
It is a lovely Christian tradition to have two Sundays in the liturgical year in which believers are encouraged to rejoice, to be happy, today in Advent and on Laetare Sunday in Lent- the one heightens the expectation of the Lord at Christmas, and the other celebrates his Resurrection at Easter, and then his Final Coming. It is fascinating too that our responsorial psalm today is the hymn of the Magnificat from St.Luke’s gospel. This hymn is filled with the spirit of the prophet Isaiah. And it is all about the poor receiving the Good News and what it means to them. Luke’s picture of the birth of Jesus is full of joy and rejoicing- with the delightful depiction of hosts of angels praising God at the birth of the Messiah. Were they singing?- Our biblical texts do not say so, but our own traditional hymns present choirs of angels really chorusing the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Indeed ‘we join in their unending hymn of praise’ in the prefaces at Mass. We hear these texts so often that we may not notice just how emotionally charged they are. However, music composers have not missed their significance. Singing was a fundamental feature of biblical prayer- with the Psalms, and the Song of Songs; even in Job the morning stars sang together (Jb 38:7), and after the Last Supper Our Lord and the Apostles left the Upper Room for Gethsemane singing the ritual Alleluia as they went towards his passion and death. How poignant. Music and poetry often are poignant. As we recall the end of the First World War at this time of year the wrenching poem of Siegfried Sassoon comes to mind:
“EVERYONE suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields;
on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”
― Siegfried Sassoon, Collected Poems, 1908-1956
Surprised by Joy
We are only too aware now that not everybody is singing in our modern world as we pray here together. The dreadful wars in the Middle East, the savage slaughters by terrorists everywhere, the infinite flow of refugees, and our own local floods, curb our joy.
But we come as always with our communal values before us, as a congregation, as friends in Christ, as people striving for the same thing. We look for Unity and Truth and Goodness and Beauty- the whole purpose and point of life. We know and long to know what St.Paul meant by the true, the good, the noble and the lovely (Phil 4:4), wonderful beyond money and power. A listening ear, a simple heart, is necessary to sense the mystery and experience the peace and joy that surpasses all understanding. We long for peace, peace where we are and where we are not, and we are so grateful when we have peace in our own hearts. Peace and joy are very closely related. The person with peace begets joy. Friedrich Schiller wrote the poem, and Beethoven immortalised it in Ode to Joy after the French revolution. It is now the official anthem of the European Union. Can we share and maintain the peace and joy with the aspirations of this wonderful composition? Surely when we say that Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe this expresses powerfully our profoundest commitment. We want to sing with all Europeans from the same hymn sheet: freedom, peace and unity in diversity. And if at all possible to share it now with those in desperate need.
We have but two more weeks left until Christmas. It is said that more people go to Mass at Christmas than at any other time of the year. They go because it is a season when love and affection are the predominant features in human relationships. For believers it is an intensified time of love and prayer and reflection, and the evocation of the values that give point and purpose to our lives. And do we not spend more time remembering during the Christmas peeriod? Looking back on when we were young, with or without our parents and children? Being far away at Christmas? Rejoicing and going home for Christmas?
Today is Rejoicing Sunday. We hope and pray that we are the occasion of joy for other people, and they for us. In our little world here we are blessed beyond measure. Others are not. They struggle with wars and floods and all kinds of problems. And we feel for them. We may even be able to help some of them. Mostly we can do very little. Happily we are a world wide Church and our brothers and sisters elsewhere do what we cannot do- and at Mass we identify totally with all of them. God help them. Let us rejoice always in the Lord, so grateful for what we have received. Amen
Rev Richard J.Taylor