In this post on the fourth Sunday of Advent Bobby Gross invites to open ourselves to this elusive thing called “joy” as we ponder the mystery of the incarnation alongside Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds who heard the angelic announcement.
We started this series on Christ the King Sunday longing for leaders who reflect both the strength and the compassion of a Shepherd/King. As Advent began, we voiced our aching desires to see greater justice and shalom in our world. The next week we considered the active work of waiting, which entails steps of preparation and a posture of peacefulness. This past week we reflected on the intangible dimensions of hoping, the gift and grace that undergirds our waiting for our truest home in God.
Now we come to the fourth Sunday of Advent, which is also Christmas Eve. The gospel reading for Sunday (from Luke 1) tells the story of the angelic announcement to the young, betrothed-but-not-yet-married Galilean woman, Mary, that she would be “overshadowed by the power of the Most High” and thus conceive and bear a baby who would be called “the son of the Most High” and would be given the throne of his great shepherd-king ancestor David. Wow! This is what the Jewish people, for so many generations, had been waiting in hope for.
The next day, Christmas, the prescribed reading (from Luke 2) tells the story of Mary giving birth in makeshift accommodations away from her home village where all her friends and relatives were, as well as the midwives she knew. Luke gives the story in some detail but doesn’t describe the birth itself. He leaves it to our fertile imaginations, especially those of women who have given birth themselves: Mary’s understandable anxiety, the discomfort of her surroundings, the exhausting and painful labor, the panting and pushing at the end. But also, with the infant’s first gasp of air and cry against the cold, the flood of relief and gratitude and especially joy, endorphin-fueled and spirit-infused joy!
What had been promised to her in a shimmer of winged glory has now come to pass on the straw strewn birthing floor. What she had spent nine months pondering and carrying inside her, the mystery and the wonder of it, has now happened. Whew!
If it’s left to us to imagine Mary’s (and Joseph’s) joy, we are told explicitly about the parallel eruption of wonder and joy experienced by a band of shepherds out on the grazing hillsides not far away. They too received a startling and terrifying angelic annunciation, accompanied by an ensemble of heavenly beings singing and chanting about the advent of shalom. News of great joy for all people everywhere: a Savior, a Messiah, a Leader is born. In their own heart-pounding joy, they decide to go immediately to see for themselves, and after finding Mary, Joseph, and the baby, they returned to their fields and homes in awe, bearing eager witness.
As we enter Christmastide, these twelve days that invite us, like Mary, to ponder and treasure the mystery of the Incarnation, I want to underscore this experience of joy. I want all of us to open up to joy as we soak in the paradoxical and doxological enormity of this event: “Word-become-flesh, Creator-turned-creature, immensity-contained, fullness-poured-out, power-made-vulnerable, eternity-subject-to-time. All this self-giving by God for our sakes—a gift immeasurable, a love incomprehensible.”
On his last night with his closest followers, Jesus spoke about making his home in the love of his Father and invited his disciples to similarly abide in his love by keeping his commands, chiefly the command to love. And then he said this: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
I’ve been working my way through the Cambridge scholar David Ford’s theological commentary on the Gospel of John and finding it exhilarating, an admittedly rare word to describe a commentary! In soaring language, Ford describes the “poetic hymn” that prologues the gospel:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people,” wrote John (1:4). Ford underscores the abundance of this light-filled life, summed up in John’s repeated references to eternal life. “Coping with an abundance of love might be seen as the central challenge of John’s Gospel,” Ford posits provocatively. And joy most assuredly is part of this abundance, part of the drama of following Jesus.
As with our musings about hope last week, joy too is a slippery, elusive thing. We use words like hope, joy, and love profusely in our everyday conversation, but upon reflection we know there are layers of meanings in these common ideas. How, for example, do we distinguish joy from happiness or pleasure or delight or ecstasy? Is every pleasurable experience a source of joy? Is joy something that comes to us or something we choose to generate, as in the admonishment to rejoice?
The poet Ross Gay dives into these permutations in his rollicking book of essays, Inciting Joy. He finds impetus to joy in such diverse experiences as grief, gardening, skateboarding, laughter, pick-up basketball, dancing, and gratitude. Inevitably, he finds joy incited in the context of caring for one another in myriads of ways.
By contrast, British writer Zadie Smith, reports “A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience.” She admits to experiencing at least a little pleasure on most days, but claims at the time of her essay (2013) to have experienced joy only six times in her life. And the most powerful involved relationships of love where the risk of losing the beloved is woven into the intensity of the joy.
C. S. Lewis similarly described piercing but fleeting experiences of joy in his early life. His search for more joy in time led to his life-changing encounter with God, the deepest source. Thus the title of his memoir: Surprised by Joy.
I suppose that joy comes to us in ways both simple and profound, perhaps seeping into the most mundane happiness and pulsing in the most ecstatic revery.
Sarah Lindsay, in her short poem “Small Moth,” depicts a quotidian domestic moment, slicing peaches into the “Tony the tiger bowl” for her child, with the family dog “poised vibrating” in anticipation of a slice falling to the floor
when she spots it, camouflaged, a glimmer and then full on— happiness, plashing blunt soft wings inside her as if it wants to escape again.
Christian Wiman, editor of the anthology from which this poem comes (Joy: 100 Poems), suggests that “joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time,” but describes the moment of joy in this poem as
In the fullness of time, simple joy came to Mary as she gave birth to her child. In an echo from beyond time, overwhelming joy descended on the shepherds out of the midnight blue.
How might joy come to us during these days of Christmas, as we ponder the immensity of the Incarnation and as we rest in the abundance of God’s love?
 Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (IVP, 2009), p. 64.
 John 15:9-11.
 The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Baker, 2021), pp. 26-27.
 Inciting Joy: Essays (Algonquin, 2022).
 Christian Wiman, ed., Joy: 100 Poems (Yale University Press, 2017), p.13.
 Joy, p.xiv.
Previous posts in this series:
Longing: Greatness and Grace in our Leaders (for Christ the King Sunday)
About the author:
Bobby Gross is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (InterVarsity Press). Bobby has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Senior Field Director for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. For 13 years he served as VP and National Director for Graduate & Faculty Ministries. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in 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. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.