Psalm 126 opens with a memory of fortunes restored: “We were like those who dream. Then our mouths were filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy” and closes with an echo of longing: “May those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
So far in our Advent reflections, we have lamented the Darkness in our world and expressed our longing for Light that would bring healing and justice. This third week, we allow ourselves some space for laughter, the delight and gratitude that comes from moments of joy. Many churches and households keep the simple custom of the Advent wreath, lighting one purple candle (against the Darkness) in the first week, two in second week, etc. until four flames surround the center Christ candle on Christmas morning. However, the candle for week three is rose, not penitential purple, signifying the inbreaking of joy.
Joy is the title of a marvelous anthology of poetry edited by Christian Wiman, which comes out of the impressive Center for Faith and Culture at the Yale Divinity School with its Christ & Flourishing project. In his introductory essay, “Still Wilderness,” Wiman probes the meaning of joy in a world of pain and suffering. With stark candor he names a problem: “…to speak of joy in these times, much less to claim to feel it—and much, much less to exhort others to feel it—might be an obscenity in the face of so much human suffering.” And yet he examines joy like an intricate treasure box, admiring these elusive experiences with their traces of transcendence. They satisfy us and at the same time leave us with an ache for more: “It is a homesickness for a home you were not aware of having.”
Whatever our distress over the world, whatever adversity we face, Advent invites us to be alert to signs of God’s immediate presence, and often he comes to us in moments of joy. Let’s watch for them and be grateful. “We must have/the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/furnace of this world,” as Jack Gilbert puts it in one of the poems in Joy.
Speaking of wilderness, my wife and I attended a wedding this past weekend in Palm Springs, a place I had never been. Set in the dry Sonoran Desert and ringed by mountains, this oasis city is surrounded by an austere beauty. But what made the cross-country trek worth it was reuniting with a circle of dear friends from our New York City years, including the parents of the groom. The leisurely walks and shared meals, the conversation and reminiscing, the joking and the dancing, the delight in the stories of our now grown children, and the celebration of marital love, all of this added up to an immersion in simple joy. Having revisited this “beloved community,” we made the long trip back to Atlanta with full hearts.
Exile and wilderness are fitting motifs during Advent. The exiled want to go home, the parched desert begs for water. When Isaiah describes the future return of God’s people to their homeland, he uses both motifs (Isaiah 35):
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
…everlasting joy will be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Of course, this thirst, this pining for home, this anticipated joy, corresponds to our Advent longing for the eschatological City and the Beloved Community of God, singing with gladness. Come Lord Jesus and bring us home!
But meanwhile, what are the signs of this future? Where do we find such foretastes of joy?
John the Baptist, having heralded Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, found himself chained in Herod’s dungeon with questions gnawing on his mind: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The signs were there, but he was having a hard time recognizing them. They were hidden to him. Jesus sent a reply: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
We’ve done a lot of weeping over the past 20 months: mental health frayed, offices and schools closed, family trips cancelled, bodies assailed, funerals unattended, weddings postponed. All against a backdrop of violence and vitriol and viral anxiety. The ruthless furnace of this world.
In Advent we lament all this, but we’re also approaching the Feast Day when we will enthusiastically celebrate “the good news of great joy for all the people.” Even now, we may be surprised by joy, like tasting freshwater springing in the desert, like encountering angels while on the job with our herds.
Keep alert for the signs: moments of healing, words of forgiveness, acts that inch toward justice, kindness extended to a neighbor, gestures of generosity, whispers from God in the mornings, friends reuniting with friends, jubilant dancing at a wedding.
Light the rose candle and accept the gladness!
 Christian Wiman, ed., Joy:100 poems (Yale, 2017)
 “A Brief for the Defense,” Joy, p. 36
About the author:
Bobby Gross has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Vice President for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Gainesville (FL), Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. Bobby is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. He has also contributed chapters to three other books, including Faith on the Edge (InterVarsity Press) and Signs of Hope in the City (Judson). Bobby has experience in preaching, teaching, and training on a range of subjects including leadership development, vocational stewardship, and spiritual formation. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.