If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes look at others and think that they seem happier than you. They seem to be always cheerful and positive, at least on the outside. Maybe we think they’re an image of happiness and want to be like them.
Except we know also that appearances can be deceiving. Smiles sometimes mask great sadness rather than happiness. We all try to put on a brave face and keep smiling. So when someone asks “How are you?” seldom do we give an honest answer, by smiling away giving the impression of being happy, we keep them happy too.
So when in our Old Testament reading Isaiah is invited to comfort his people, perhaps a bit of him hopes it will be an invitation to tell them to “don’t worry, be happy” to keep smiling.
Instead that comfort looks rather uncomfortable. For he says ‘prepare the way of the Lord……Make straight in the desert a highway’ and remind them that ‘All people are grass.’
Cheery stuff that invites us to ask whether comfort isn’t always about making everyone feel better at least not in the short term. It’s interesting that one word used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit is also ‘comforter.’ We know both in the stories from scripture and in our own lives that that comfort can indeed be challenging.
That leads on to Zechariah in the Gospel reading from Luke and to ask whether he was he comforted when he made his way into the sanctuary and encounters the Angel Gabriel. However we heard of how he is ‘terrified’ and fear overwhelms him. Yet the Angel tells him, ‘you will have joy and gladness.’
Those words have really lingered as I’ve thought about this passage. It is one of two encounters that Gabriel has in this chapter of St. Luke, the second in the subsequent verses is with. There again fear is around but interestingly Gabriel doesn’t give her the same assurance, he does not say ‘you will have joy and gladness’.
For Zechariah and Elizabeth the cost of parenthood was the same as for Mary and Joseph. Their son too would be an outcast, revered and reviled in equal measure and his life would end in a brutal death. And yet Gabriel said to them‘you will have joy and gladness’.
Thinking about the two readings neither Isaiah or Gabriel were trying to make people happy, at least happy as we often understand it, yet Gabriel spoke of joy and gladness, words which to me are bound in some way to happiness.
Happiness for me is a word to describe a feeling. And it’s a seductive feeling because as I reflected at the beginning to be or at least appear happy is often as I said at the beginning something we think important.
And yet to be happy, for me at least, is not an end in itself, something we pursue in isolation through self-help guides and being determined to smile come what may.
Instead it’s a word to describe that which flows from deep within us that place where joy and gladness dwell, that place written deep within our DNA where we know we are loved by God.
Trouble is though I believe that to be true, I, as I think we all do get a bit lost sometimes. We invest in seductive false idols which we think will make all the difference. That seems particularly apparent at the moment as retailers seek to sell us things which will make sure we have the best Christmas ever.
In contrast this season of Advent is in part at least about getting back to basics, to look within, repent and begin again. That’s why there is a penitential theme running through these few weeks.
This penitence though isn’t about brow beating us, keeping us in our place as it were. Rather it is a true gift, a precious time to re-kindle in us the deep joy and gladness of which Gabriel spoke. To remember that we are God’s beloved children that we matter, that we are not defined by what we have or what we do.
At Morning Prayer throughout Advent, we say together some other words of Isaiah
‘The ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Joy and gladness shall be theirs and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’
In Advent we go back to basics and remember that Christ is the saviour of the world.
That He is our joy and gladness.
That He is our happiness. Amen.