Isaiah 52:7-10 | Luke 2:8-20
One of the unavoidable realities, it seems, of modern life, is that Christmas – or rather, advent – is a time of busyness, a time of running around trying to get everything done. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of videos doing the rounds in sort of Christian Facebook circles, each in their own way trying to remind the viewer that Advent is supposed to be about getting ready for the mystery of Christmas, a time of reflection, preparation, prayer.
One of these videos included the line “if you reach Christmas and collapse in a heap, you haven’t done advent right”. And while I have a lot of sympathy for the desire to encourage more reflection and less headless chicken running around, I had to feel as if such a line could only be written by someone who (a) doesn’t work for a Church and (b) doesn’t have children – or grandchildren!
And then I thought back to the last couple of Christmas’, and to kMotion, and I thought – there are a lot of Christmas kMotion volunteers – and a lot of the kids who come, who are going to reach Christmas and collapse in a heap precisely because they have done advent. Because they have spent the time exploring and entering into the mystery; in fact, they’ve thrown themselves into it so fully that there is nothing left.
And all those people who have given their energy over advent to preparing meals for family celebrations; writing cards to distant friends; volunteering to help at school events; helping others via the SES or RFS; feeding the needy at The Dish, or Exodus; or the thousand other ways that we spend our time and energy for others, for relationships, for communities at this busy time of year; and I wonder – perhaps collapsing in a heap on Christmas because we have given ourselves for others isn’t so far from doing advent right after all.
Not to say we shouldn’t seek time to reflect, to pray, to read the stories: but maybe it’s ok for it to be a time of activity, of celebration, of joy…
Because for all the solemnity and seriousness, all the profound truth and wisdom and theology that is embedded into the story of Christmas, at its heart it is a story of joy.
How beautiful, wrote the psalmist, How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, brings good news, announces salvation
The sentinels lift their voices, and sing for joy, for they see the Lord returning to Zion.
“I am bringing you good news of great joy” said the angel to the shepherds – and when all was done, they returned to the hillside glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard.
But “Joy” is one of those words that turns out to be a bit harder to define than you expect, certainly the way it is used in the scriptures. Surely it is not just happiness, not just satisfaction or pleasure. It feels somehow deeper, more enduring, and at the same time perhaps more elusive than that.
C.S. Lewis spoke of his life as being, in a sense, the pursuit of Joy – of a numinous reality, once glimpsed, in a moment of glorious revelation, and ever thereafter in the corner of his eye, just beyond, just out of sight.
There is a sense in which Joy is that reality which is more real than what we see and taste and touch; the reality which is God’s creation, God’s future, God’s kingdom; the reality which the stories that bookend our Bible – the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem – try in poetry and imagery to give us a glimpse of.
The Truth that underlies the who of creation – the truth of the love, the faithfulness, and the ultimate reliability of God. Our Joy, and our Hope, our Love, our Peace.
So the angels came and declared good news of great joy. In the birth of a child. A child that they describe with three powerful and loaded words…. born a saviour, the messiah, the Lord.
A saviour. Now there’s a word that we have laden down with so much spiritual meaning that we find it hard to hear it fresh. It’s not a special word, not a religious word. It meant exactly what it says on the box – someone who will save you. No ‘from your sins’, no ‘from hell’. Just ‘one who will save you’. To someone living on the edges of society; to a people living under Roman oppression, surely to be told ‘you will be saved’ would have had far more of a political sound than a religious one.
In fact, of course, the angels did not say what Jesus came to save them from. Perhaps that’s because the answer would not be the same for any two people. Perhaps because what he would save you from would depend on what you needed to be saved from.
Messiah, or Christ, on the other hand, that’s a religious word. The one anointed, anointed by God. Set apart by God for a special purpose; and in particular, for religious and political leadership. Kings were anointed, as were priests; the anointed one would be both.
And more even than that, more than saviour, anointed priest and king, the one who was born as the lord. Now that word, kyrios, lord, can have a very human meaning – the master, the boss. But it is the very same word that the shepherds use when they say “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”. The baby born, and the God who made the birth known to them through God’s messengers, the angels, are named with the same title, kyrios, Lord.
The whole of the gospel is here in these few verses. The birth is announced to the outsiders, with the promise that he will save them from whatever they need saving from, that he will be their king and their priest, for he is their God. No wonder “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Here, then, is Joy. Here is the mystery, the numinous good news that eludes our description, evades all efforts to pin it down; the Good News that is Emmanuel; the Good News that is salvation; the Good News that set the shepherds praising and glorifying God – though you can be sure that if you asked them just why they were so happy they would have been hard pressed to give a coherent answer.
Here is the point of advent. Whether our advent be a time of reflection and quiet or a rush of good and worthy and important busyness; here is the thing that underlies both, that gives meaning to the response of both Mary and Martha; here – just beyond our reach, just out of sight, beckoning us onwards – “further in further up” – towards Bethlehem, towards the mystery of our faith, the source of our Joy