Advent and Unfathomable Joy

Advent and Unfathomable Joy December 15, 2021

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), “Angels Appearing before the Shepherds,” Wikimedia {{US-PD-expired}}.

This past Sunday, many churches anticipated Jesus’ coming to the world by lighting the Shepherd’s Candle. The Shepherd’s Candle signifies the joy the shepherds experienced at the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth. The angel who appeared to the shepherds tending their flocks on the night of Jesus’ birth declared to them that Jesus’ presence would spell “great joy for all the people.” Here is the passage in Luke’s Gospel that recounts what transpired:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2:8-20; NIV)

I have been thinking of this passage and the theme of joy quite a lot the past several days. As I play Christmas tunes in my son Christopher’s room at his rehabilitative care facility, I ponder how people like the shepherds can experience joy amid great challenges in life. The shepherds lacked privilege, power, and financial security. They were on the lower rung of the social ladder in their society. How striking it is that the angel and angelic host appeared to them. Maybe the angel appeared to people in places of great affluence, social status, and significance in the region, but Luke’s Gospel says nothing of it. All we know is that the author wishes to highlight for the reader God’s abundant care for the downcast and downtrodden.

The shepherds were filled with dread at the angel’s appearance. However, their dread turned to joy at the angel’s announcement about Jesus and finding him lying in the manger. While I have never seen an angel, I have experienced dread. Waves of fear have flooded by soul and imagination at various times since my son endured a traumatic brain injury nearly eleven months ago. Although I have never experienced the challenges a shepherd faces, I have endured such intense anxiety that counting sheep would not help me fall asleep some nights.

And yet, I have also experienced moments of joy that are inexpressible, incomprehensible, unfathomable. Like the neurosurgeon’s statement a few weeks after my son’s emergency surgery that there is still so little neuroscience knows about the brain, which is so mysterious, I confess as a theologian that there is so little my faith knows about joy.

What I do know is that joy is often different from happiness, especially if we associate happiness with wonderful circumstances. With this point in mind, I don’t get the sense that the shepherds left the manger scene that night and found out they had won the lottery or that God had dropped into their flock sheep with golden fleece. What brought them joy was that the Lord was near. The same can be true for us today.

The Apostle Paul writes about such mysterious joy while suffering imprisonment for his faith many years later. In Philippians 4, he encourages fellow believers to rejoice in the Lord always because the Lord is near: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7; NIV)

The Lord was near to those shepherds that first Christmas. The Lord is near to my son in his minimally conscious state no matter the season of life. The Lord is near to me no matter how conscious I am at times of God’s presence. However, when I rejoice in the Lord regardless of my circumstances, and realize the Lord is indeed near, I experience peace that extinguishes my anxiety. As Paul writes in Philippians, it is the kind of peace that “transcends all understanding.” So, too, is the joy one experiences in those moments.

I pray that this day that Christopher and you and I will experience this unfathomable joy deep within our souls, as well as the peace that transcends all understanding, no matter our circumstances. The Lord is near.

PS: Today, I am going to upload two new songs on Christopher’s lengthy and eclectic playlist on his tablet. Both are written and composed by English songwriters—one by Isaac Watts and the other by Mick Jagger. The first is “Joy to the World.” The other is “Joy,” which Jagger sings with Bono. Both mention the joy Jesus’ presence brings. You can listen to them here and here. I close with the opening lines of Watt’s hymn:

“Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let Earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.”

You can also read the various posts about our unfathomable journey related to my son’s traumatic brain injury at this link. Thank you.

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