Ode to Joy
Composed by Beethoven, lyrics from a poem by Fredrich Schiller, English Translation.
O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!?
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies?Which
He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory! You millions,
I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions
World, do you know your creator
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.
Ode to Joy
What is an Ode? An ode is comprised of three oddities. It’s a rhythm that is more than a rhythm: it’s an irregular or elaborate metrical form. It’s an emotion that is more than an emotion: it’s a feeling of enthusiasm or exultation. It’s a poem that is more than a poem: it’s a song. There’s something not quite right about an ode and therein lies it’s fun.
The ode seemed to Beethoven the perfect musical form for conveying his joy. It not only fit the grin of joy itself, but his life as well. Beethoven’s passion to compose music was a consuming fire. He once wrote to his brothers
“O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you and I would have ended my life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”
But just as his love and career were kicking into high gear, his passion met its greatest challenge. By the young age of 26, he spoke of hearing loss. By the age of 30, he complained in his letters of buzzing in his ears; at this stage he had lost roughly 60 percent of his hearing. A year later he said in a letter to a friend:
‘I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession, I might be able to cope with my infirmity; but in my profession it is a terrible handicap.”
You don’t need to know music creation to know that deafness and music go together like oil and water. But there we have it. At the age of fifty-four he stood on stage. It had been twelve years since he was on stage. It had been decades of not hearing most things and three years since he reported that he’d gone completely deaf. Moreover, his health was deteriorating at the time; he would die two years later of the buildup of scar tissue on his liver. But, as he said earlier, ‘he (could not) leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.’ So despite his suffering, isolation, difficulty, and rejection, brought on primarily from his an illness that was no known fault of his own, he stands on stage with a message for the world: it’s the ninth symphony, which I am told critics say may be his best. And the last movement of the ninth, so his final piece on his final symphony: can you guess it? It is the ‘Ode to Joy’.
I see Judaism and Christianity as an Ode to Joy. O, how deep do they know suffering, but how deeper still do they insist on joy!? How loudly do they sing the song of the psalmist, ‘even though weeping may stay for the night, joy comes in the morning.’ My hope today is that through your deepest pain you may also find your joy.
The Jewish Ode to Joy
If you know anything at all about Jewish history, a ‘hashtag joy’ might not be the first tagline you’d use. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said on this topic, ‘as Jews we have degrees in misery, postgraduate qualifications in guilt, and gold-medal performances in wailing and lamentation.’ He points to another who summed up the Jewish festivals in these three sentences: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.’’
Just look at the seven core festivals of the Jews:
Look at Pesach, Passover. If we celebrated this festival, what would we do? Around the family table, we light candles, we cringe our faces on bitter herbs, we consume copious amounts of lamb, play hide and seek with the unleavened bread, and, over a surprising amount of grape juice or wine, we cheers God, and nature, and each other.
Look at Chag Hamotzi, Unleavened bread. What happens there? We lift up the dry, unyeasted, unrisen bread up to the sky and say cheekily, ‘“This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” A child, usually the youngest around the table, then asks a series of questions regarding this bread of affliction and liberation. Young and old, rich and poor, powerful and powerless: all getting nourished as we crunch on unbread bread together.
Look at Yom Habbikurum, Feast of First Fruits. We lift up a sheaf of the first grain of the harvest season (Lev. 23: 10), a head of barley, or in our culture we might more fittingly use coffee, wave it in the air, and with thanksgiving we toast God. It’s the ‘the festival of the harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field’: it’s Independence Day, it’s Thanksgiving Day.
Look at Shavaut, Feast of Weeks. What happens there? The law book, the constitution, is brought out, lifted above the gathering, paraded amongst us and the party often spills out onto the streets.
Look at Rosh Hishana, Good Year. What happens here? We shout. After lighting candles, eating sweets, praying, we blow the Rams Horn. We’re saying ‘wake up’. It’s new years.
Look at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. What happens here? We are full of resentments against people and we get into fights with them, then we can’t figure out how to get out of those fights: we don’t know how to forgive, how to heal divisions. This day is a day to simply say to the other ‘sorry’.
Look at Succott, Tents. We organize a week of living outside. This might mean simply eating meals outside or even sleeping as well in tents in the backyard or elsewhere. It’s a week of feeling the bite of the cold and the warmth of the sun. It’s a week of being homeless.
Think of the story that’s being recalled here:
They’re celebrating through refugee status. Their had been a famine in their native land, which had forced them look elsewhere to find food for their cattle and themselves, which eventually landed them the doorstep of Pharaoh in Egypt. Having some good family connections in the country, they were allowed to stay and pursue happiness as they saw fit.
They’re celebrating through dept. Yet another famine turned that land into dust. So they again had to look up for help. The government said they’d assist, but under certain conditions: we get to own your land and your cattle: that is, we possess not just your money, but the way in which you make money.
They’re celebrating through slavery. What could they do? They said ‘yes’ to the deal, simply to eat and feed their children, and so became slaves. Their new master then moved them from shepherding to construction, presumably out of no choice of their own. Then one of their company, a man named Moseh or Moses, stood up to the master and said, ‘no’, ‘enough’, ‘let us be free’: free to pursue happiness, free to work, free to worship God. The boss, of course, replied ‘no’. The man, empowered (lest us not forget) chiefly by a motley crew of strong women (Moses’ Mother, Moses’ sister, Hebrew midwives, Pharoah’s daughter, Pharoah’s daughters servant, and so on), insisted, ‘yes’. Finally, the master relented and they walked again as free people.
They’re celebrating through war. The old Master would not let the people go. An even bigger master, aka. the God of the Universe, conducts a series of tactical moves which forces him to relent. The people were momentarily emancipated. But the old master musters his chariots and metal to bring them back. Once more, the old master was overcome by the tidal force of the new. The people sing songs of jubilation.
They’re celebrating through tents. Sure, the wild is free, but it’s also unknown and scary. You can get bitten by snakes. You feel the cold of the night, the heat of the day, and the prick of the desert. Perhaps, they thought, it would be better under the comfort of the old system. But, Moses insists further, the wild is tough, sure, but out here under the sun and stars and rain we are each free to pursue happiness, free to work, free to worship God. Moses generally wins the argument, so they continue their long walk to freedom and, sure enough, they find an abundance of bread and water for their bellies and spirits. In time, they develop their own laws: laws, which apply not just selectively to the lower 20 percent, but equally to all in the land. Moses dies before their promised land. A new leader picks up the baton. He marches them into a promised land. Some say it cannot be done. But they press on. Indeed, they shout, they blast the trumpet together, so loud that the walls of the old system, which people thought could never come crumbling down, fell with a great crash. They hold on to become a lawfully just people: one nation under one God, with liberty and justice for all, was the gist of it.
This story that we tell and retell our children is no story you’d find on the Wiggle’s. It’s a story of suffering, rejection, bondage, isolation, hardship, and death. Try putting that story on Sesame street. But it’s also a story of triumphant worship, provision, belonging, freedom, justice, and life. Indeed, it’s a tearjerker, but through it all joy.
Mind you, this is not happiness. In ancient Greece, Aristotle said that happiness, eudamonia, is the ultimate goal at which all humans aim. In the U.S., James Madison echoed the same sentiment when in the Declaration of Independence he said that all people are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them finally in his alliteration is the pursuit of happiness. In Australia we just said ‘No worries’. We didn’t even need to worry about writing it down, because it’s obvious. When we don’t have worries, what do we have? Presumably, in the positive and emotional form, happiness! Moses’ vision for his nation rather strives for something more.
The pursuit of happiness is not unimportant for the Mosaic vision. The closest Hebrew word for happiness is ashrei. At the end of his life, Moses blesses his people, and in his speech says, ‘happy are you, O Israel, a people delivered by God’. Later on, as their Tent of God becomes a House of God, happiness leads the book of Temple songs, called the Psalms:
Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners or sat where scoffers sit. But his desire is in the Torah of the Lord; on his Torah he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in all that he does he prospers. (Ps. 1:1-3)
Described here by happiness is a serene life. Like a strong tree, such a life is rooted. It is not blown away by every passing whim. It is, rather, a life that is established, survives, thrives, and bears fruit as it lives according to the laws of God, of nature.
But ashrei is not the highest emotion in the Mosaic vision. Simcha, the hebrew word for joy, is. In the so-called books of Moses, joy mentioned once in each of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but no less than twelve times in the final book of the journey, Deuteronomy. Just as Israel is about to enter into the Promised Land, Moses stops them on the border and presents them with a list of blesses and curses. The blessed life comes, he says, by way of obedience. The cursed life shows up on your doorstep, he says, “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things” (28:47) Moses concludes: ‘I have set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction, so choose life, that you and your children may live.’ For the Mosaic vision of life in ones country, the highest emotion is joy and the highest service, as to God, is to be done with joy.
Here, joy is shared. A newly married man in the land shall not join the army for a year. Why? So that he may ‘bring joy to the wife he has married’. All offerings, says Moses, are to be brought to the Temple at the center of society. Why? So that ‘There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and rejoice in all you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.’ Moses describes the Festivals, which recall our harrowing journey out of Egypt and into Israel, as days of joy: ‘Be joyful at your festival–you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.’ Though happiness may be that enlightening something you experience when you sit alone by yourself under a tree, joy is a celebration that must be shared.
Israel, as Moses’ dream it, is to be a place where it’s citizens ultimately serve God with joy. That’s the Jewish Ode to Joy.
Christian Ode to Joy
Now for the Christian Ode to Joy, which is really a continuation of the Jewish Ode.
Central to Christian celebrations is Holy Week. Now, why do we call it ‘Holy Week’?
After all, it was a pretty unholy, unjust, and miserable week? As Jesus comes into the so-called holy city, he weeps at a distance and being is derided by the scholars as he gets close. As he was being plotted against, his own disciple sells him for quick cash, betrayed him with a kiss, and then hangs himself. As he was arrested, one of his closest friends and disciples disregarded his teaching that he held so dear. This friend drew the sword, cut some guy’s ear off, denied that he ever knew him, and went outside the city gates, and wept bitterly. Once arrested, Jesus foregoes a trial that reeks of injustice. He was tossed to and fro between politicians and bureaucrats: there was Caiaphas the High Priest, Herod the Prefect, the City Council called the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate with Caesar in mind, and the crowd. Each office seemed to want this agitator gone and dead, but no one wanted to get blood on their hands. They each lobbed their accusations: he’s a conspirer or terrorist (i.e. he’s plotting to destroy and rebuild the temple), an insurrectionist (i.e. he claimed to be a king), a blasphemer (i.e. he claims he’s a child of God). But all he did was love, and heal, and give hope to people. Despite substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of crimes committed, he was pronounced guilty under penalty of death. As he awaited his fate, the prison wardens bullied, harassed, tortured, whipped him to mash. They further humiliated him by stripping him naked, placing a robe on his back and a thorny crown on his head, and laughing at him as the Jewish king. As he was dying, the long stab of injustice, humiliation, and loneliness set it. The caw of crows would have been heard above, as they waited for a fresh body to eat. The jeers of the crowd, looking for some sadistic entertainment, were heard below. As for his friends, most of them no longer associated with him, presumably out fear to meeting the same ill fate. So excruciating was the torment not only of his physical self, but his psychological self, not only of his body, but his soul, that he felt that even God had abandoned him. Amongst his last words were, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ His lungs collapsed, his heart failed, and his naked body convulsed: he was dead. There’s not much more evil than what happened on the first Good Friday. So why do we, Christians, celebrate it as holy?
According to Paul in his letters to the Romans:
‘All have fallen short of the glory of God….But now…the righteousness of God has been displayed…This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe….God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness.’
Paul is suggesting that Christ’s sacrifice was an illuminating sign in the dark of the righteousness of God.
We may put it like this: we call holy week ‘holy’ because in Christ’s sacrifice ‘good’ made a spectacle of ‘evil’:
In Palm Sunday, we recall that he was derided, but also that he carried on the parade, reminiscent of the processions of King David, and he did it on a donkey of all animals. So we wave our palm branches in the air, make a kerfuffle around the neighborhood with singing and dancing, and enter into a church with most of its lights out. We too carry on the humble party.
In Love Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday, from the old English maure, meaning mandate or order, referring to the fresh command that he gives, ‘a new law I give you, that you must love one another as I have love you’, we recall his betrayal, but also that he shared meal, even washed their dirty feet of his friends and adversaries. So we continue laboring in the messy business of love, either by washing anothers feet or, in a more modern way, serving our neighbor through their mess by cleaning their gutters, fixing their drywall, or other distinctively ‘odd jobs’ that bring clean to mess or fix to broken. We also share a meal with one other called Eucharist.
In Good Friday, we recall his betrayal, but also that he responded with healing. As he was betrayed, he rebuked the proud and healed the victims. As he was arrested, he spoke truth in and out of silence. As he was beaten, he, in his best kingly attire, lets them do their worst. As he’s being killed, he’s forgives them. We too do not cease walking in a good world despite a bad world. Indeed, we each take up our cross, for the healing of the world, whether that be in the moment speaking truth to power or listening to the powerless, bandaging a wound or creating a wound, or finding affection through forgiveness when you know they’re in the wrong.
In Easter, also called Sunday, or Resurrection Sunday, or Passover (Easter, according to the earliest English Historian, a monk named Bede, comes from their word and goddess for dawn, the root eus/aus, meaning ‘to east shine’, where we also get our word for east or April, and was used in their day to refer to the Latin and Greek concept, Pesca, Passover. This is in line with what the earliest Christian’s called the high holiday of Resurrection, of New Life, in the common Greek and Roman language of their day, pascha, a cognate of the Hebrew pesach: passover), we recall his death, but also his life. We remember that he became a sign of the great hatred, injustice, suffering, and death that human beings and systems are capable of, but also of the healing, forgiveness, grace, and life. In this story, if you’re with this king and kingdom, love, not hate, life, not death, has the last word.
The Christian Ode to Joy is that even when bad news makes the weekly headlines, our way, our reforming way, our faithful way, is still good news.
Your Ode To Joy?
Kierkegaard once said ‘It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.” I wonder, through your own dark night, where is your ode, your nevertheless, your holy insistence, your celebration, your joy. Moses and his people found their Ode to Joy. Jesus and his people found their Ode to Joy. Even Beethoven and his people found their Ode to Joy. Have you found your own Ode to Joy?
When I sent this sermon to my dad, my most heartfelt critic, he expounded, ‘For a god who created everything and who lacks nothing, what could we, his created, possibly give him that would have any value. Gold, diamonds, art, music, sacrifices of animals or even humans or children….. what value would any of that have to him? I believe the only thing we can do to truly bless and warm the heart of God is to be joyful and thankful. By living a joy filled life and being thankful and appreciative to him that has provide everything…. we are offering up the truest form of praise and worship.’ Amen, my carpenter by day, preacher by night daddy! My hope for you this holy week is that even through your deepest pain, you may find your own personal and shared and sacred joy.
Can I get a witness?