Joy. It’s the candle we light this week. The 3rd advent candle. But what is this joy we speak of? A word we put on chalkboards and hang on pennants inspired by Pinterest and see on storefronts and all over Christmas décor. J.O.Y. And what is it to have joy when there is so much sorrow and ache that often encompasses these holidays? The missing of a loved one lost, the ache of loneliness, broken relationships and shattered dreams fill so many of our stories and seem to be so much more poignant at Christmas. Christmas holds so much wonder, and ache. And it should. For think of our Savior, about to humble Himself and become obedient to death “for the joy set before Him.” His journey into our skin was truly one of wonder and ache. And think of the thousands of years before Christ, those waiting in wonder and ache. And the thousands of years after Christ, us the waiting people, waiting in wonder and ache. A wonder at all we have seen God do and an ache for all that has yet to be redeemed.
Three years ago, I entered the Christmas season having just buried my firstborn daughter, Sophie, a few months earlier. My heart was filled with sorrow and pain. Words of that old hymn, Oh Holy Night resonating with my soul in fresh ways. “The weary world rejoices.” Yes, the weary, weary world. I was so very weary. And yes, the rejoicing world, for Christ came into our world to conquer sin and death forever and never in my life had that meant more to me than after losing my daughter. The rejoicing holds greater joy for the one who sees joy break into their weariness. But I was still struggling to fully embrace that, for my prayer for the following year was that it would be one of joy, joy with a disclaimer; “Only joy please Lord, no pain”. What I did not yet know was that true joy is not the absence of pain but the very transformation of it. The joy that I was longing for was the kind that transcends darkness, throws back the curtains of pain and shouts to a broken world “Behold, I am making ALL things new.” (Revelation 21:5) It was the kind of joy found not in my circumstances but in the presence of the One who makes all things new.
That year, the joy that I was praying for would at first seem to me a prayer God did not hear as we would find out that we would also have to bury our 2nd born daughter, Dasah. And it would be in the dark night of the soul that I would discover that truly it is His presence where there is fullness of Joy (Psalm 16:11) His words holding true to their promise, never returning void but accomplishing what they are meant to do. And they were breathing life and hope, transformation and worship into this heart of mine as I began to discover a Savior who didn’t show up like I expected Him to but would show up in ways I could have never imagined, much like the men and women awaiting His arrival over 2000 years ago.
400 years of silence, of waiting for the promised one to break through and conquer and then He came. But He didn’t come like they thought he would, and he didn’t conquer how they thought He would, and He wasn’t supposed to die such a horrific death. He couldn’t possibly be the one we have waited for? Yet for the ones who knew, it was the juxtaposition of the life of Jesus, next to the death of Jesus, next to the resurrection of Jesus, next to the now waiting for His coming again that brought the kind of joy that led them to radical, faithful living.
J. R. R. Tolkien coined a term for this. Eucatastrophe: A good destruction. He writes in his essay on fairy stories “The resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest fairy story and produces that essential element: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where joy and sorrow are at one, reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.”
You cannot have true joy until you know great sorrow. This sorrow is discovered as we more fully grasp the reality of our sin and the weight of what Christ bore on the cross. It is discovered in the ache our hearts feel for the brokenness all around us, and it is discovered in the midst of the sorrows that invade our lives. It is in the knowing of great sorrow that we more fully realize the joy that is coming, the joy that has come. And that wonderful promise “Behold, I am making all things new” begins to grip the heart of the weary as we find joy in the presence of our Savior and joy in the wonder and hope of His promise to redeem it all.
A few days ago, my husband and I sang “Joy to the World” with our son, born into our family through adoption earlier this year. And tears filled my eyes, for joy has been greater than weariness this Christmas season. And our story has looked so different than what I thought it would. My heart still filled with wonder and ache, for wonder at all God has done, ache at what is still lost and a steady growing awareness that though joy fills our home in fresh ways, it is a joy more firmly rooted in His presence not our circumstances.
Tolkien goes on to say “All tales may come true and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as man, finally redeemed will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.” This story of ours, this story of yours, this story of our world will be redeemed. These stories ARE being redeemed and have great purpose in the greatest story ever told, makes sense in the cosmic ordering of all God is ordaining. Joy will erupt, can erupt now, will erupt fully. For when you know the King, then you know the Joy. And just as thousands of years ago, people waited for the coming of the King, so we know today He came. And we sit in our Advent season waiting for the King to come again. For the King IS coming.
“Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” John 16:22
“Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” – J. R. R. Tolkien