There’s a musical term “gioioso” which is a direction to play “with joy” – to convey some sense of inner liveliness of heart stemming from joy. It’s not a direction to perform in a happy or giddy way, though a piece marked “gioioso” is likely to be very upbeat. But the point is that those listening to the piece should be in no doubt that there is something to celebrate.
It’s not about how the musician is feeling, but what is experienced in the heart of listeners should be a sense of joy: of something worth celebrating being in the air, whatever the external circumstances of the performance.
Joy is a word which has been notably lacking this year. The lockdown months have not been “gioioso”. Yes, for some there have been positives among the turmoil, but the character of our national life has not been “gioioso”. This bothers me. personally. I know I haven’t been living up to St Paul’s call to “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice”, and I think part of the problem is that there has been so much to respond to, so much to adapt to, that inevitably, life ends up being problem-formed rather than vision-shaped. So how to recapture the Magnificat vision of Mary which sprang into possibly the most “gioioso” song ever, upon hearing she was to give birth to God’s Son? Why did Mary’s heart respond with joy?
To truly hear the Joy of the Lord, to take it to heart and embrace it, we first need to let go of self and world, and focus on God. One way is through history. If we know our Scripture and Church history, we can recall and celebrate God’s wonderful deeds in the past, throughout human history, as we do in the first part of the Eucharistic prayer. The birth of Jesus was a unique event, but it is not where the story of salvation begins. We see it unfolding consistently throughout Scripture: from the moment of Creation onwards, God’s love, grace and goodness has been evident. The universe itself proclaims the glory of God and each person is created in God’s image. Whether we turn to history, the wonders of the universe, the lives of the saints, or the glory of each human being, ourselves included, we find reason for joy, but the emphasis is always on God.
The first step in Mary’s joy involves perspective “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” Advent Joy begins when we get God, the world, and ourselves in perspective. Joy flows as a gift when we lift our eyes to the hills, to God – beyond ourselves and our circumstances. There have always been songs of lament in the world, and with good reason. Your heart may naturally gravitate to lament rather than joy at present. However, to remember ourselves as lowly before God, and to respond to God’s call on our life as Mary did; to focus on God’s greatness, God’s power and God’s salvation is a step in the direction of true joy.
Nick Morgan is the Priest in Charge of the Bramham Benefice in the Diocese of York.