For any of us to lose our hearing is a tragedy. It cuts us off from much of life. But imagine being a supremely gifted composer, a musical maestro – and losing the one faculty you need most of all for your work. It’s akin to a pilot losing her eyesight, or a brain surgeon developing a tremor in his hands. Such was the catastrophe that befell Ludwig van Beethoven, born 250 years ago this month.
In his twenties, still honing his talent, Beethoven’s hearing began to deteriorate. He had to abandon his promising career as a concert pianist. Over the years, he tried every manner of medical intervention, to no avail. As a silent world enfolded him, he grew increasingly frustrated, irritable, withdrawn. Eventually, stone deaf, he had to rely on what he called his ‘mind’s ear’ when composing. Yet, despite this callous twist of fate, this cruel life sentence, Beethoven was able to conjure music of astonishing beauty, exquisite harmonies that soared. He crafted compositions of unprecedented complexity and grandeur, sublime, transcendent, immortal.
Music always remained for him a labour of joy. Beethoven’s symphony No. 9, his last symphony, ends with the Ode to Joy, a triumphant celebration of sisterhood and brotherhood that has become an anthem of European unity. It’s a majestic choral masterpiece that does what it says on the tin – a hymn to joy unconfined, a touch of the divine. Imagine being able to write something so extraordinary when you’re profoundly deaf.
Ode to joy. For Christians, Christmas is the great season of our joy. We mark the birth 2000 years ago of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, who in his life, his message, his dying and rising, made our salvation possible. His birth is joy to the world, as the angels sing, joy unconfined. We celebrate God’s labour of love that gave birth to joy.
Joy is an experience our battered world badly needs after the long year we have endured.
Last May, as George Floyd choked under a policeman’s heavy knee in Minneapolis in the United States, his last gasping words were, “I can’t breathe.”
“I can’t breathe” is an apt metaphor for 2020. It describes the experience of those flattened by Covid 19. It encapsulates so much of our human experience.
“I can’t breathe” is an expression of the wearied cry of the world’s poor, whose plight is worsened by the pandemic.
“I can’t breathe” is the jaded cry of those continuously crushed by racism, in Ireland as well as overseas.
“I can’t breathe” is the exhausted cry of women and LGBT+ people and all who suffer discrimination.
“I can’t breathe” is the plaintive cry of our plundered, pulverised planet.
“I can’t breathe…” Three little words that express the suffering of our beautiful world. Three words that remind us of all we need to do to fulfil the angels’ message of joy to the world.
There are many for whom Christmas is the most painful time of the year – a time of sadness, loneliness, grief, loss.
We cry out for hope, for good news, for respite from drudgery and lockdowns and routine. Joy is something we need to experience and celebrate, and Christmas is the season of joy.
Pope Francis loves the word ‘joy.’ It’s sprinkled throughout his preaching and writing, it’s in the titles of his major letters and encyclicals – the joy of the Gospel, the joy of love, rejoice and be glad. It’s no surprise he loves that word because joy is the hallmark of our Christian faith.
Joy is the essence of this feast. The joy in knowing God is with us; the joy in knowing God has not forgotten us; the joy in love shared; the joy of families united. Christmas is an ode to joy.
And though Covid has left us weary, there is much to be grateful for this year, many reasons to rejoice. Gratitude for our dedicated doctors, nurses, carers, all our frontline workers, who have given of themselves so selflessly this interminable year; gratitude for the sense of community and shared responsibility that has kept transmission of the virus under control; gratitude for modern communications technology that allows us to stay connected, that enables businesses to keep going and liturgies to be broadcast, that helps us stay sane. Gratitude for the joy of sport, its ability to draw us together, for the excellent boost Limerick’s All Ireland hurling triumph has given the people of this city and county. We have many reasons to rejoice.
So remember today what brings our Christmas joy. Jesus’ humble birth has prepared a way for us to draw near to him. In our brokenness, our poverty, our weakness, our need, God comes to us. God’s presence is healing and life-giving and renewing. We shout for jo for we have been saved.
Feel that joy today. Let it seep into every molecule of your being. Let it envelop you. Invite it in, especially if you have lacked its fullness this year. Inhale it. Nurture it. Treasure it.
Share that joy. It’s a precious, priceless gift. Reach out to those you know who have found this year difficult, who find this time of year difficult, those laid low by illness or financial worries or separation or loss. By your words and actions, lift them. Carry them. Carry each other.
Hold onto that joy. These festive days will pass. Post-Christmas blues will sweep in. Our long Covid nightmare isn’t over. But when normality resumes, choose to continue to take refuge in God and to rejoice. Because of Jesus’ arrival 2,000 years ago, we are now able, even in the midst of darkness and uncertainty, to experience the joy of God’s presence forever.
An overflowing joy of which Beethoven’s immortal music is but a tiny little foretaste.