The third candle of Advent is ‘Joy’ or the ‘Shepherd’s candle’. For me that’s three great topics: The Joy; The Journey; and The Banned.
Let me start with Joy. For me Joy is not about what I have, it’s about who I am: it’s not about my money, my status, my relationships, or my place on the leaderboard; its about that deep sense of knowing who I am, what I am, and why I’m alive. The problem with Joy is that it’s impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it in some small way. As Louis Armstrong said about jazz: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
But the problem with Joy is the misunderstanding. The popular carol says: Joy to the World. The problem is that if Joy is understood as ‘happiness’ or ‘no worries’, then the carol is wrong, and the whole idea of Christmas moves to a present-giving, nosh-up, with familial-types. For me ‘Joy to the World’ needs to be understood with the other stories of Jesus’ life: and that includes concepts like – the first will be last, and blessed are the poor, mournful and the meek.
For me Joy is an inward journey. I haven’t reached Joy in all it’s fullness, because I haven’t reach my final destination. But can I find Joy in the Journey? And that’s the problem with Joy – I can’t tell you about it because I haven’t been there! I can only tell you about my journey. The wee video below by the author of The Happiness Trap got me thinking about Joy and the Journey recently. Its a bit cheesy, but it’s also challenging!
I’m a fan of Kenneth Bailey’s books. I like the idea that he writes about the gospels after having taught in, engaged with and walked round the Middle East for many years. In one of his books, he writes about the Nativity Shepherds, and points out that the profession of shepherding was a ‘proscribed trade’: not only were they poor, but, because of how they earned a living, they were forbidden to take part in certain religious and community activities. They were barred, excluded and banned by the establishment in place at that time.
In Palestine two thousand years ago the shepherds and the wisemen weren’t equivalent to each other, like we see on Christmas cards, or in modern Nativity plays: they were polar opposite ends of the social and economic spectrum. The three Wise Men brought valuable gifts and would have been a surprise to Mary, Joseph and the people around them. The shepherds would have had nothing to offer, they would have been scruffy and poor, and their presence would have been awkward or embarrassing for some.
The first Christmas was for the Banned, as much as it was for the Kings.