“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times...” Someone once said that in a book or something... ok, ok, opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. Nonetheless, a very poignant opening line and very, very wise... life is like that... best of times, worst of times... sorrow and sweetness all wrapped up into one.
Sometimes it is not easy to figure out which is which... take the story of Mary – unwed, pregnant, potentially alone, trying to convince others that it is a miracle, about to be moved off to another city, told by angels she will birth a saviour, welcomed with open arms by her cousin Elizabeth and even her betrothed, Joseph... the best of times, the worst of times.
How about the Israelites, forced into exile, city abandoned, finally granted freedom, returning to ruins, planting their own gardens... again, best of times, worst of times... and yet... and yet...
People who embrace the reality that life is both sadness and joy at the same time come to such a deep understanding that it can lead to song... nowadays it leads to the blues... but once upon a time, it led to songs of praise to God... and we are going to hear one of them in just a couple of minutes.
Rejoice and be Glad
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing....”
It is an incredible poem, an image of all the things going right in the world that you could hope for... it is like sitting at home in the middle of a snow storm and remembering that you are soon going to be lying on the beach in Jamaica under the palm tree with the coconut drink in your hand and the sun shining down on you...
I have seen firsthand that there are both good times and bad times; good things and bad things in life. I think we all have. We all have those painful gut-wrenching, hearts breaking moments that make us doubt that anything good could possibly come out of it.
But I am here; I do what I do, because I believe that Isaiah knew something I do not! Isaiah was trying to tell us that we need to hear God speaking even when we are in pain; we need to know that God’s love is still there in the desert moments and the blossoms are still possible.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by love even in the midst of something horrible happening? Have you ever just known that love is there for you and will lift you up? That is what Isaiah felt, that is what Mary felt, they knew that painful things were happening, they were afraid, and yet... they trusted God’s love was there and would bring them through.
When Emily was born she had the cord wrapped around her neck. She was not breathing, and did not breathe for over 3 minutes. It was a moment of incredible fear and pain in my life. I was certain that my baby I had waited so long for had died.
The moment that the breath first happened, the moment that the colour first changed... I was filled with Joy.
It is not exactly the same, but it makes me think what Mary might have been feeling. She could have been stoned to death; he baby might have been born into an uncertain world where no one would care for it. She might end up raising him alone when single mothers were not safe.... how could she possibly believe that God was good?
But the story unfolds, She hears the angel, she sees the prophecies, Joseph loves her, she visits her cousin and is welcomed and loved... Mary comes to see that her baby will be loved, it might be safe, and well, it might not be an ordinary baby.
Elizabeth says that John leapt in her womb because of joy the minute their bodies touched.
And more than that – Mary felt it in her body, in her spirit; in her soul... we are not talking about happiness here. We are talking about something that goes beyond the simple pleasures that make us happy – something that touches us so deeply and so passionately that we cannot help but sing.
That sense of joy is not just rooted in the birth – it is rooted in something greater than her, in her God – her understanding of how God has blessed her in this moment.
We know that joy in our lives at times... Like when we celebrate Christmas for the first few times, or get our drivers licence and go for the first ride. Or fall in love for the first time, or hear a heartbeat for the first time...
And that joy is not dependant on everything being perfect. Perhaps that is one of the things we can take away from the wisdom of Mary.
So life cannot be perfect, and that is fine. But we need to know that there will always be joy. That there will always be times when love conquers the darkness.