The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C, St. David’s Church, Nashville

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).

“Joy” is an Advent theme, a word that looms large in the season. Our liturgy and lectionary do their best to keep the word in front of us during Advent, returning again and again, in prayer and psalm and reading, to the theme of “joy.”  If you look back over the past two weeks you will see the word constantly cropping up, as St. Paul prays “with joy” (Phil. 1:4) or remembers “the joy” he feels at the faith of fellow Christians (1 Thess. 3:9).

In our liturgy today, for the Third Sunday of Advent, the People of Israel are told, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, to cry aloud and ring out their joy (Is. 12:6); the prophet Zephaniah also lends his voice to the chorus when he tells Israel to “shout for joy” (Zep. 3:14).  These solemn injunctions culminate in our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, with Paul’s joyful exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4): itself nothing less than the imperative verbal form of the noun we have been conjuring with all season. Joy at the prospect of Christ’s coming in glory: as we prayed last week in our collect, that we might greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Joy is my theme today, prompted by the Advent liturgy. We may think that joy is simply a shorter word for happiness, used for convenience depending on the context. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” scans as a poetic line, while trying to put the word “happiness” in there doesn’t quite fit, does it? We might think that joy and happiness are just two words for the same thing. On the other hand, we might think that joy is happiness raised to a greater degree, a sort of super happiness, like “dark” chocolate, or two scoops of ice cream.

But the words are not really equivalent, or related in a merely superlative way, as happiness doesn’t quite add up to joy, even with a second helping heaped on. Joy is something else, more sudden and fleeting than happiness. I heard a talk the other day by an author who said that the difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is something extended in time, while joy is how we feel in the moment (Ingrid Fetell Lee, TED talk, November 16, 2018). Right there the author has hit upon part of the nature of joy: it is transitory, encompassed in a moment, and all the more precious for that.

Joy isn’t worrying about the future or glancing back at the past. It’s for now, for today, for the present moment. When Paul prays for the Christians in Philippi or gives thanks for the Christians in Thessalonica, he’s in the moment, pierced by a joy that comes from God. He can’t command it; and like the manna in the desert it can’t be stored up and preserved for a later day. Because it’s in the moment, St. Paul has to be watchful and wakeful, and attentive to what God is doing now. That is part of the secret of Advent, a season in which we are called to pay attention to the new thing that God is doing in our midst, and to greet it with joy.

Joy is not only fleeting, it’s also sudden. Because it’s a gift from God it cannot be scheduled or anticipated. When C.S. Lewis wrote his autobiography he entitled it, Surprised by Joy, which is a quote from the poet Wordsworth, and captures the nature of joy. Joy is spontaneous; it shows up when you’re least expecting it. Again, part of the message of the season of Advent is our looking out for the coming of Christ, his sudden coming again that no one can anticipate. As Jesus says, over and over again in the Gospels, no one knows the hour. We will be surprised by joy.

Finally, joy often comes in the midst of difficult times. Lewis, again, calls it “bitter-sweet”.  Joy breaks out even in situations where no sane person could talk about happiness. “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy” (Jas. 1:2), the Letter of James says. Joy is liminal, happiness in the badlands, the waste places of the earth; it is the consolation we receive as we encounter God present even in trials and difficulties. God is powerfully present even in the situations that cause us to wonder; even when we shudder to be there, God is there, redeeming the time and the circumstances that beset us.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice *(Phil. 4:4). The Lord is at hand, as St. Paul says. Joy is the gift we are given in this Advent season, as we look for Christ’s coming again. Be watchful and wakeful, for God is in the moment. He will come suddenly, when we least expect, to give us joy at his coming.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee