Advent, Christmas, Joy!
This Sunday, 26 November, marks the start of Advent – the season in the church when we ready ourselves to celebrate the incarnation, that strange and wonderful event, when God takes on human flesh and enters fully into the human condition, with all its tribulations and joys. It is quite commonplace to understand the birth of Jesus as a rescue mission: a response to human frailty and sin. But I don’t think this is the whole of it. A Jesuit priest once said to me, about God’s coming in Christ, “I think God would have come anyway, because God loves us and wants to share life with us; it’s not just about the desire to redeem us.”
While the next four weeks will probably be some of the most frantic weeks of this year, Advent also presents us with the opportunity to make some quiet time. Time to reflect on the meaning of the birth of Jesus, time to sit quietly with God, time to re-connect with our deeper longings – longings for healing and wholeness; for meaning and purpose, for lasting joy.
Joy is certainly on the minds of the gospel writers Matthew and Luke, as they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. The angel who appears to the shepherds in Luke’s account says, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” And Matthew describes the wise men being “overwhelmed with joy” when the star they have been following stops over the birth-place.
In a recent Chaplain’s Assembly, I shared with the girls in Years 10 – 12 what I have learnt about joy in my life so far. I share these with you here, in the hope that this may prompt you to think about joy in your life. I have discovered that:
- The big events in life can be deeply joyful (birth, finding your soul mate, achievements of various kinds), but there can also be joy in the ordinary and everyday e.g. a flower coming out, the company of a tree.
- Our animal friends can teach us joy. I have learnt from my cats about the joy of lying on a warm spot on a cold day, and from my dog about the joy of swimming laps in a blue plastic shell.
- It’s important to be active in seeking your own happiness, but joy often comes as a big surprise (when you haven’t tried to make something happen). In other words, it’s not up to us to make joy!
- Mostly, for me, joy is when something breaks through and touches my heart – it’s something from beyond that makes my heart sing. This can happen in many different places – in an Art Gallery, in church, with another person.
- There is a certain kind of joy that can also be experienced in grief. Some weeks ago, I had the very sad task of saying goodbye to my friend Keren. We have been friends since prep. Speaking to her on the day before she died was heart-breaking, but there was also a kind of joy in our affection for each other.
- Joy is what God wants for us. My faith is that joy is our destiny – and that the ups and downs are part of us really knowing what joy is. That doesn’t make the downs any less painful to endure, but it does give me the appetite to face such times, with however much hope I can muster.
- S. Lewis, in his memoir, “Surprised by Joy” writes:
Joy . . . has indeed one characteristic, and one only . . . the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.
May this Advent and Christmas-tide include many moments of pleasure for you and your loved ones, but may you also find yourself surprised, held, embraced by joy.
To quote Tiny Tim, in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: God bless us, every one!