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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Values for Advent 3: Joy

This month I’m reflecting on some of the values that might help us keep these short precious weeks of Advent with what I suggested we might call ‘spiritual intelligence’.  You can find my previous offerings below this one on the website. The first was longing, when we looked at how Advent is meant to focus our desires on God and to nurture our hunger to see his kingdom come.  Last week’s theme was contentment, which I saw as rooted in thankfulness, the only way to cure the relentless drive to possess that is so evident before Christmas.   Today I want to look at a third value that I believe is fundamental to Advent.  That value is joy.  

‘Rejoice always’ says St Paul. In all things, let the watchword be joy.  Joy is the particular focus of this particular week. Last Sunday, the third of Advent is known as Gaudete from the opening word of the traditional introit at Mass: rejoice!  But joy is meant to mark all of Advent.  It is not a penitential season like Lent when we sing Miserere and lament the brokenness of things.  Rather, it’s a time to take up the ringing acclamations of the Hebrew scriptures that Zion’s ancient longings for God’s coming are about to come true.  ‘Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy, for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 52.8-9).  And this glad expectancy is not only for human beings, still less the religious.  The whole creation utters its inarticulate song of joy at what is coming on the world: ‘let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it.  Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming to judge the earth’ (Psalm 96.11-13).  And when the time comes for the forerunner to arrive, his birth brings not fear but delight: ‘you will have joy and gladness’ the angel tells his father Zechariah, ‘and many will rejoice at his birth’ (Luke 1.14).  

The word in Greek is chara, close to charis, grace, and eucharistia, thanksgiving.  So joy belongs both with God’s generosity (which is what grace means) and our response to him of gratitude.  The capacity to be joyful, then, flows from the capacity to recognise, celebrate and embrace God’s acts as our creator and saviour.  We are what we are, a people of joy, because of what he is, a God who is all-justice and all-goodness.  Augustine says that ‘the authentic life is to set our joy on you, grounded in you, caused by you’ (Confessions 10, 32).  For God has made room for us in his world.  He has given us all that is lovely to enjoy.  He has come among us as our Saviour Immanuel.  We find ourselves re-orientated towards his own life and love, like a sunflower being turned towards the sun and opened up by its light and warmth.  In all this, our wellbeing, our shalom, is secured.  What we call gladness, joy, happiness, delight well up within us because we know that ultimately all shall be well.  

St Augustine is a great theologian of joy because he is not afraid to explore his own human experience of pain and pleasure.  Here, you feel, is a man who has truly lived, who knows his own hungers and drives, satisfaction and disappointment, has tasted both sensuality and emptiness. In his Confessions, he lays bear a soul discovering how the experiences of human life and relationships both point to the secret of lasting happiness while at the same time withholding it.  He learns how to see into the life of the things so as to discern the God who beckons us there to know and love him.  He glimpses how our ordinary joys point to a larger, enduring joy.  ‘When I love you, what is it that I love?  It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh: it is not these I love when I love my God.  Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God - a light, voice, odour, food, embrace, of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satisfaction can part.  That is what I love when I love my God.’ (Confessions 10, 6)  Was ever delight more movingly or sensually expressed?

But Augustine knows, as we do, that even the best we enjoy of God in this world is partial and fragmented: fugitive pieces of a larger picture that still eludes us. In the Confessions he recalls his habit of looking for happiness in the wrong place, how he has had to learn that joy has a future tense that keeps waiting and longing alive: ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new, late have I loved you. You were within and I was living outside and looked for you there, and plunged into the lovely things you had made. You were with me but I was not with you. Those things kept me far from you…. But you called aloud and shattered my deafness.  You were radiant and beautiful.  I drew in my breath and now I long for you.  I tasted you, and now I feel hunger and thirst only for you.  You touched me, and now I am on fire for the peace which is yours’.  The paradox of Advent is that its joy is both now and not yet: both with us but still to come.  Only the future brings with it a joy that is without end.  

This is why, when Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, ‘the common people heard him gladly’ as the gospel puts it.  They knew that only God’s future could bring what they longed for, only his kingdom of righteousness and peace could usher in true and lasting happiness as the Sermon on the Mount makes so clear.  So it’s right to come back to the last things which ought to be our focus in this season.  What we look for in Advent is nothing less than a new world, God’s final word of judgment on all that is evil and wrong and the establishment forever of the kingdom of Immanuel in righteousness, joy and peace.  ‘God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Revelation 21.4).  

This is the faith we confess in the climactic words of the Nicene Creed that ought to make our spirits dance and summon up a rush of joy every time we say them: ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.  Expecto in Latin – not just hope for but look for, which is what New Testament hope is.  At the eucharist, we celebrate the risen life of Jesus in our midst and proclaim his death ‘until he comes’.  And that reminds us, even in the midst of so much that makes us afraid, to hold in our hearts and our hopes the consummation of all things at the end of the age, when hope is emptied in delight, and we know him as he is.  It is the source of the joy that sustains us.  It’s the joy that no-one can ever take away.     

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