June 2, 2024

I remember when, years ago, Dadgie and I took a picnic to Tanglewood.  We sat on the lawn beneath a giant tree and listened to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Chorus perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  I recall that it was a beautiful day, and I remember looking up at the sky through the leaves of that great tree and feeling that this was the an eternal moment.  I feel that a lot, though, when I listen to the Ninth Symphony.  It was exactly two hundred years ago last month, with the ink practically still wet on the paper from Beethoven’s pen, that the symphony was first performed.  It is a spectacular and inspired work that always brings me to a remarkable combination of laughter and tears – tears of joy.  And that’s the idea, isn’t it – joy?  The symphony was, according to Jan Swafford, Beethoven’s answer to the unanswered prayer “Dona nobis pacem” (or, “Give Us Peace”) at the conclusion of his sister work, the Missa Solemnis.1  The Ninth Symphony is an exuberant celebration of the divine gift of joy, inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s ode: An die Fruede (or Ode to Joy) which Beethoven set to music and incorporated into the final movement of the symphony.  The poem begins with a shout, and an exclamation: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” (Joy!  Beautiful Godspark!). It refers to this joy as the “daughter of Elysium,” Elysium being the idyllic land of flowers and lovely meadows that is the domain of those souls destined for paradise.  It is astounding that Beethoven, in his final years, would choose to shout for joy with this symphony.  He was blind, racked with pain and humiliation from illness, and arguably on the verge of insanity.  What was there in life to celebrate as divine joy?  Therein lies the quest of this sermon.

I have not struggled with the kind of disabilities and torments that Beethoven did.  But I have had my moments.  Many years ago, before I married the love of my life, I found myself in a terrible state of depression.  I was divorced and alone; I had lost my job, lost my home, lost my family.  In a session of counseling with an excellent therapist I was led into the depths of that depression.  And in the midst of my deep and desperate aloneness, I made a profound discovery.  I realized that I still had myself!  And in that discovery lay a hidden truth, something that I only gradually began to internalize in the months and years ahead.  That truth is this: that I am profoundly connected to Life itself, to the universe, to every person, to God, to (and I’m partial to the way Tillich put it:) the “Ground of All Being.” And my connection to all of that is unbreakable, and it is Joy itself.  It’s what the Psalmist was exclaiming those thousands of years ago.  He wrote, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. . . . Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”  That divine communion is what Jesus spoke of in today’s reading from the Gospel of John.  He employed, of course, a metaphor.  He said that we are connected with a vine that has branches and bears fruit.

I happen to believe that every human being shares in that vine.  Beethoven and Schiller seem to agree.  The words of the Ode to Joy embedded in the Ninth Symphony celebrate the universality of this connection:


All creatures drink of Joy

At Nature’s breasts.

All good, all evil souls

Follow in her rose-strewn wake.

She gave us kisses and vines . . .


No matter who you are, no matter what your background, how many your weaknesses and failings, or how pervasive your disbelief, you are connected to this Core of existence; you are a recipient of those treasured gifts of kisses and vines.  And in an ecstatic moment, Schiller seems to want to do more than make the point; he gives it a wild and passionate exclamation mark!


Be embraced, you Millions!

This kiss is for the whole world!


That kiss, that embrace, is joy.  Joy is that connection, a connection with the Heart of Reality, a connection ultimately with one another (even with all the millions), as all of us are branches on the vine.

Jesus sums it up for us.  He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  And then he says, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”  He couldn’t be more clear.  The connection we share on this vine is joy itself – complete joy.  And it has everything to do with loving one another – with, as Schiller put it, “all men being made brothers where the soft wings of joy sway.”

What does this mean?  It means that joy is a very different thing than that transient emotion: happiness.  It is not an emotion.  Joy is a profound and unbreakable connection that remains firm – abides, if you will – even when blindness comes and the lights go out, when pain and illness take over a life, when loss and aloneness seem to be all that’s left.  Such joy is the bedrock on which a life can be constructed.  It does not yield to the tremors and quakes that upend plans and bring dreams down to the dust.

But, of course, there is always a caveat.  Jesus says that every branch that bears no fruit is “removed” and even the branch that bears fruit is “pruned” to make it bear more fruit.  I think he’s laying out the truth that people frequently cut themselves off from the nourishment of that vine by simply disregarding it.  When we fail to acknowledge, nurture, and celebrate the abiding connection we have with the Heart of Being we find ourselves desperately alone.  As Schiller writes in our ode, if a person has never called “even one soul on earth his own . . . let him steal away weeping from this fellowship.”

And, the very traumas and heartaches of life, although they cannot shake the foundation of our joy – our connection with Grace – once it is established, can serve to “prune” away the extraneous, hone our perspective, and remind us of what truly matters in life.  I have known this in my own experience.  It was a heart attack that finally cleared away the fog of trivial pursuits for me, and allowed me to distinguish that which is true and lasting from that which is momentary and unreliable.  I’m sure that in your life there have been moments that have served you in that way.  For Schiller the extraneous parts of life that need to be pruned are the habits and customs that we can find ourselves entangled in, and which can separate us from one another, or even from ourselves.  He addresses Joy with awe, saying:


Your magical power binds together
What custom (or habit) tears apart.


It is simply turning away from that defining, holy connection that results in a profound alienation, and it is turning toward and affirming that connection that centers and grounds our lives and frees us for love.  The point is, as someone once noted, “You can’t get to love except through joy, and you can’t get to joy except through love.”

In the course of these two hundred years, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has taken its place as one of the most impactful pieces of music in human history.  It has been claimed by people of all ideologies and nations on the earth; it was transposed into one of the great hymns of the church: Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee; it was played as the resounding note of celebration at the fall of the Berlin Wall; and it has been adopted by the European Union as their anthem.  Jan Swafford writes, “What can be said with some certainty is that its position in the world is probably what Beethoven wanted it to be. In an unprecedented way for a composer, he stepped into history with a great ceremonial work that doesn’t simply preach a sermon about freedom and brotherhood, but aspires to help bring them to pass.”2

Well, I guess I’ve just preached that sermon.  I think the Psalmist wraps it up best.  He struggles, as we all do, with trying to comprehend the power and presence of Divinty.  His struggle can be seen, in one light, as a reflection of all the larger struggles of our lives – the trials and the hurts that might threaten to distract us, turn us in on ourselves, and turn us away from the vine, the Joy – the complete joy – that is our connection with the Heart of Being.  He puts it this way:

“How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.”

Let’s sing together: “An Die Freude.”

1 Jan Swafford, in the program notes to BSO Performance at Tanglewood, August 25, 2013.

2 op cit.

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