What are the first five (plus or minus two) words that pop into your mind when you hear the word “joy?” Are any of the following synonyms on your list?
gladness mirth delight elation felicity rapture bliss jubilation exhilaration exultation glee euphoria
Just reading the words makes you smile, doesn’t it? And you can probably add to the list. A suggestion for an awkward pause in conversation at a holiday party, perhaps?
All of these words embody the idea of happiness, and more: extreme happiness, beyond the ordinary and expected. Wrapped up in the notion of joy is surprise at the unanticipated depth of the emotion: You didn’t know you would be so happy, or perhaps that you even could.
The Third Sunday of Advent is known in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Christian traditions as Rose Sunday or Gaudete (“rejoice”) Sunday. Gaudete is the first word in the traditional Latin entrance hymn at the mass of that day, coming from the fourth chapter of the letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (v. 4) Rose refers to the hue of the altar hangings and vestments – a departure from the more placid deep blue or solemn purple of the rest of the Advent season. It’s like an unexpected glimpse of the sun in the ever-darkening season approaching the winter solstice. A burst of joy on this Sunday about halfway through Advent is both fitting and welcome.
During Advent we anticipate the joy that comes with the arrival of a baby, almost always a joyful time for a family, but especially so for this birth. This very special baby is by nature both divine and human. His birth story is anything but typical: He was born during a census in the ancestral town, Bethlehem, rather than the hometown of his parents, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (5:2) His mother learned of the baby she would bring into the world from God’s special angel messenger, Gabriel, who announced to her that she would give birth despite being a virgin. The baby’s first visitors in the stable where he was born were shepherds who were similarly visited by angels. When you think about it, there isn’t very much about this event that could be called “expected!”
The writings of the Old Testament contain expressions of joy from God’s people in association with God’s mighty acts in their history – delivering his people from bondage in Egypt, returning them to their homeland after exile in Babylon, helping faithful and just kings defeat their enemies in battle. Joy also describes the people’s response to human events such as ones that people still experience every day: the birth of a child; finding a treasured object after searching for it everywhere; welcoming home an adult child who had lost his way in life but somehow found it again. No wonder people often say at such times, “I didn’t know I could be so happy!”
So we wait for the miraculous birth with Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, and the town of Bethlehem and the country of Judea, and all of God’s people throughout many generations. We anticipate the holy joy of Christmas and pray that it will cheer and enlighten this world, where many still walk in darkness and suffer in the misery that sin creates. May the birth of the Holy Child fill us all with joy, at this season and always!