Monday, November 30, 2015

The Advent of Joy


            How do you define advent? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines advent (with a little “a”) as “a coming into being or use.” Advent with a capital “A” means “the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting.” And it also means “the coming of Christ at the Incarnation.”
            Combining those definitions, we can write our own for this special event: “Advent is a special month-long celebration, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, that commemorates and celebrates the coming into being of Christ, when God took on flesh and came to Earth.”
            In a nutshell, we have entered into a season where joy has come into being.
            The first Christmas was the birth of real joy!
            Two weeks ago we looked at how the Wise Men rejoiced with exceeding joy when they located the young Christ. They were so overcome with joy that they fell down and worshipped Him. Not just kneeled down, genuflected, or lowered themselves into a position of reverence. They fell down.
            How do you picture them in your mind? Collapsing in a heap? Tripping, stumbling or falling onto their knees? I imagine them being so overcome that their weakened knees collapsed, and they fell on their faces and lay prostrate before Him. Their joy translated to awe, and they did the most natural thing in the world in front of the world’s Savior: they worshipped. Their hearts wouldn’t allow them to do anything else.
            Have you ever been so joyful or delighted that you became weak-kneed and fell down? Maybe when your beloved made a marriage proposal to you? I’ve seen that happen, most often on YouTube or America’s Funniest Home Videos.
            I thought my husband, Chris, was going to collapse from joy when his first-born son was placed in his arms and tears poured down his cheeks. And he nearly collapsed from joy (and fear) when the doctor told us he was going to discharge our younger son from the hospital after ten days in the neonatal intensive care unit, even though he’d originally told us not to expect much and warned us it would be some time (like a minimum of six weeks) before we’d be able to take him home. Come to think of it, Chris was also overcome with joy when the nurse called him to tell him he’d become a father when our younger son was born. He was so overwhelmed that he told her she must have the wrong father, because his baby wasn’t supposed to be born until later that day.
            I’ve seen soldier’s wives and kids collapse in joy when their homecoming fathers, who have sometimes been deployed for years, step off the airplane and run into their waiting arms. I’ve seen homecoming mothers who have also been deployed collapse in joy when they see their waiting children and husbands and grasp them in a loving embrace.

            Christmas is the time of year—the “season”— in which we probably think most about joy. The delighted squeal of a child when he opens a present he’s dreamed of receiving. The excitement on a child’s face when they decorate a Christmas tree and watch the Christmas lights switched on for the first time. My 20-year-old son’s face still lights up in wonder and his mouth rounds into an “O” when he first sees those lights illuminate the tree or our house. We experience joy when we find just the right gift for that special someone in our lives, watch him open the gift and witness the thrilled expression on his delighted face.
            Yesterday, November 29, officially marked the first day in this 2015 Advent Season. This time in the year when we look back 2015 years (give or take several years), and proclaim the joy brought to the world when the Prince of Peace came to Earth—God’s gift to mankind who showed up in an animal stall. A lowly, smelly, (but, I’m sure, comfortably warm), barn. God Himself manifested in fleshly form. He didn’t exactly arrive and announce His appearance in the way most imagined He would, but then that’s so like God to have His own way—not ours—and “do things out of the box” as we like to say.

            Yet before the Wise Men experienced their joy, there were those lowly shepherds hanging out in the fields, doing what shepherds do: keeping their eyes on their sheep. I can imagine that for them, it started out like any other night.
            “Isaac, you get the fire going and I’ll heat up the pomegranate cider and olive flat bread. I think you’ll like the cider. Bought it in Jerusalem last year during Passover. Been saving it for a special occasion. It should be nicely fermented by now.”
            “Caleb, you make sure you keep an eye on that little lamb over there. He’s been wandering off lately.”
            “Jason, take a look at that pregnant ewe’s right front hoof. Looks like she’s been favoring it, and it may have a stone wedged in it.”
            They gather the sheep in close to them, unfurl their bedrolls, pass the cider and bread and sit down to an evening chat session, what those of us from Hawaii call “talk story.” They were probably laughing and carrying on about the events at home, stories they read in the Bethlehem Times and overheard in the synagogue scuttlebutt, when they suddenly get the kind of unexpected visitor that probably caused some of them to wonder what old Jacob put in the cider.
            The angel of God on duty that night plunks himself down right in front of them, and the glory of God envelops all of them. Lights them up like a Hollywood special effects scene. And scares them almost to death. (I can imagine one of them even tried reaching for his slingshot.) They’re so frightened that the angel has to calm them down by telling them not to be afraid because he’s bringing “good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” Read that verse again: Good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people. (Emphasis mine.) And what were the good tidings of great joy? “The birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” the angel says. And guess what? He’s a swaddled-up baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem. That’s the shepherd’s sign: that they need to be on the lookout for a brand new baby lying unceremoniously in an animal food trough in a barn.
            Then to punctuate the message, a multitude of God’s angelic army shows up to add to the shock and awe, sing praises to God and wish peace to Earth’s men of goodwill. If the shepherds weren’t convinced before, that probably sealed the deal for them. Because as soon as the angels teleport back to heaven, the shepherds discuss it among themselves and agree that they need to scurry to Bethlehem as soon as possible. So they take off—I’m going to guess they sprinted since the Bible says they “came with haste”—and (after maybe splitting up and hunting around a while) they found Jesus, just as the angels said he would be, lying in the food trough.
            And what did they do after they saw him? They ran around telling everyone they could about what they had seen and heard while they had been in the fields, how they’d been directed to find the Savior, found Him and actually saw him with their own eyes.
            Like the Wise Men who couldn’t help falling down to worship Jesus, these shepherds—then considered the lowliest of anyone on the workforce pecking order—couldn’t help telling their story. They probably spewed out the news to everyone they saw. The Bible also says people marveled at what the shepherds had to say. (Actually, it may be just as much of a miracle that anyone believed them, because shepherds were considered so lowly and untrustworthy that they weren’t even considered to be reliable witnesses and weren’t allowed to testify in court.)
            It was the birth of joy.
            And that’s what Christians around the world celebrate anew this month and on Christmas day. The birth of joy. Good tidings of great joy born and delivered to men of goodwill. The most miraculous and important gift ever given to the world.
            And the event deserves to be commemorated and celebrated. He deserves to be celebrated.
            We don’t just put up “holiday trees.” We put up Christmas trees and top them with stars to remind us of the star that led the Wise Men to Him, or we perch angels on them to remind us of the triumphant announcement proclaimed to the lowly shepherds and the world. We have a month-long birthday party to celebrate the birth of Good News.
            This will be my 58th Christmas celebration, and I know my heart is in danger of becoming jaded to it, of taking it for granted. Of looking at the season as more drudgery or headache than its worth.
            Are you like me? Are you looking for a new, fresh way to celebrate Advent and Christmas this year?
            If so, then I invite you to really concentrate on “joy” and what it means to you. What He means to you. Pray that the Spirit will fill your heart anew with the kind of joy that drove the shepherds to obey the angel, and abruptly leave their sheep unattended in the field so they could peer down in awe at Jesus, and then shake up the town (and world) with the Good News they’d heard and seen with their own eyes.
            Pray and fast for the kind of joy that caused the Wise Men to drop to the ground in worship.
            Pray for the kind of joy that doesn’t just ebb and flow based on your circumstances but that permeates your life. That changes how you see the world, and how others see you, and Christ.

            Or maybe you have never even experienced that joy, and you want to know how to have it.
            Pray for it. Pray for it to be given to you. Accept the angel’s announcement as truth and go searching for it like the shepherds and Wise Men. Ask Jesus to reveal Himself to you like He did for them.
            He’ll show up for you, even if you—like a lowly shepherd hanging out in a dark field—don’t consider yourself worthy. And He’ll say to you, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good tidings of great joy (delight)! For I, the Christ, have come into being. Rejoice! For I have come. To you!”

            If you have an idea for a new way to celebrate joy this Christmas season, or you celebrate Christmas in a unique way, please share it with our readers. Just add a comment to give us ideas on how we might truly make this blessed season special!

So until next week (and more joy!),

Thanks for joining me,



Artwork Credit: Parker Prescott Owan; 1997 award winning colored pencil drawing
Photo Credit: 2015 Andrea Arthur Owan