A brief reflection on Luke 2.8-20
Early last week I went to see my physiotherapist. I hobbled into the waiting room and found a seat. Not far behind me was a woman of similar age whose hobble was much the same as mine. As she lowered herself gingerly into her seat, I winced knowingly. “It’s been a long weekend,” I said. “Oh yes,” she replied, “in more ways than one.” As we chatted, we talked first of our backs and commiserated together. But then we spoke of more important things.
She told me about her son. He had received his VCE results and they were not good. “He’s devastated,” she said, “and I just don’t know what to do.” She described her son’s dream to study engineering and of the limited options now open to him. She spoke of his tears, and of the closed door to his bedroom. “I don’t care what he does,” she said almost pleadingly, “He could be a garbage collector for all I care. I just want him to be happy.”
I so get that. As I father, I understand. I have often wondered, when all is stripped away, what do I most long for in the lives of those I love? What do I want for them more than anything else? That they would be happy? Yes. But the deeper question follows: what does it mean to be happy? And does the word ‘happy’ really cover my deepest desire for them?
In the season of Advent, today is the Sunday of joy. “Joy to the world,” we sing as we light that fourth candle. Immediately following the birth of Jesus, an angel appears to shepherds in a field and declares to them, “I am bringing you good news of great joy!” Before long a choir, a multitude of angels fills the night sky. “Glory to God in the highest,” they sing, “and on earth peace.” Is this just a very theatrical way of saying, “Happy Christmas!” or is it more than that? What is this joy the angel trumpets?
It’s evident that whatever this joy is, it has very little to do with the shepherd’s personal happiness. As hired labourers — those who watch other people’s sheep for money — shepherds who work the night shift are near the bottom of the social ladder. It’s not as though pre the birth of Jesus they are poor and sad and post birth they are prosperous and happy. The fact is, after their visit to the stable to see the child, they return to the very same circumstances. Nothing immediate has changed. It’s the same for Mary and Joseph. The shame, fear and uncertainty that coloured their story leading up the birth do not suddenly evaporate. Indeed, following the birth of Jesus they must flee to Egypt for a fear of a king who wants their child dead. They have no choice but to ride off into the night, alone and scared. So much for happy Christmas.
Clearly, this joy the angel speaks of is something very different to the personal pursuit of happiness. It is found in something larger than self-interest or personal wellbeing. For the shepherds in the field and for Mary and Joseph on the run from persecution, this proclamation of joy goes far beyond their own stories. If it is theirs to claim personally, then it’s found in being gathered up in a story much larger than their own. The angel declares to the shepherds, “to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah.” In the birth of Jesus is an invitation to the fullness of life for all humankind. It is in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus — the story of a life lived from beginning to end for the good of the world — that the source of real joy is found.
This joy that we celebrate today is no momentary experience of happiness. It has little to do with brightly wrapped gifts under a tree or the contentment that follows Christmas lunch. It is more than that. Through the birth of a child, this joy marks the beginning of a reorientation of our world toward hope. This reorientation is made possible through the birth of Jesus. For in Christ God steps into our world. It is no longer God over us or out there in some heavenly or cosmic realm. No, in the birth of a child, God is with us. God is birthed in us. Through Christ, the way is now open for all humankind to experience the fullness of life.
What do I most want for those I love? Yes, I want them to be happy. To be honest, I would prefer their lives were free of pain, failure and struggle of any sort, but I am wise enough to know that this is foolishness. For they live in the real world, not some fanciful land of daffodils and smiley faces. So in this real world, I want more than anything that they would discover for their own lives a purpose that is larger than their own self-interest, the possibility of a larger story which gives their own stories meaning and direction. I long that they love well and sacrificially, that they live their lives in a way that leaves the world a better, more compassionate and just place. I long that they would know a joy that infuses and inspires their living and impacts the lives of others.
On this 4th Sunday of Advent, I believe that God our father longs for this in all of us. Whatever our story, whatever our personal circumstances, the good news of great joy is a story into which we are invited. It is a story born in us this Christmas time, a story into which we are born. The joy of this season is a way of being in the world that embodies the love, the peace and the hope of God.
I do wish for you the joy of Christmas. More than that, I pray that you will be gathered up in that joy and that you’ll find the courage to live it in all the days to come.
Image: ‘The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds’ by Thomas Cole (1834)