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Finding Joy: The Countercultural Practice of Advent Continues

12/13/2013 01:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2014

Advent, unlike the more widely known Christian celebration of Christmas, is a long, quiet, reflective season focused primarily on prayer. For me, celebrating Advent for the four weeks or more leading into Christmas Eve has been healing as an relationship-oriented alternative to the task-orientedness of Christmas itself. Like many who live with long-term financial instability, as I have for most of my life, the decorations, seasonal foods, and gift-buying of Christmas add pressures that are beyond my ability to meet and simply depress and overwhelm me. However, the quiet daily meditations of Advent that encourage community and self-transformation by drawing ever nearer to and resting in God's presence are accessible to anyone who wishes to practice them.

As we enter the third week of the Christian season of Advent, we move from a time of celebrating hope and preparing for God's presence in our lives (whatever our circumstances) to the practice of rejoicing. During Week 3, we light both the previous two purple candles of hope and preparation but now add a pink candle as we meditate on the joy of loving God and other people. This is sometimes called the shepherd candle and connects us to the prayers of the shepherds to whom angels sang announcing God's presence incarnate in infant Jesus of Nazareth at Bethlehem nearby. During this week of Advent, we celebrate Godly joy that overcomes our natural human fears: With the shepherds, we praise God and pray for peace among all people (Luke 2:8-20). The deeper message of this week for all people is that peace between us really can be embraced with joy when we finally let go of fearing each other.

For each day of the week, a short meditation is offered connecting with the biblical practice of joy as more than a fleeting emotion but as in some way a spiritual intention and gift we allow ourselves to receive from God:

Meditation 1: In the Hebrew Bible, human joy in God's redeeming presence often spontaneously erupts into song and dance - most famously Miriam's song after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea to escape Egyptian slavery (Exodus 15:20-21) and King David's nearly-naked dance of worshipful celebration in front of the ark of the covenant that Jews believed made God especially present (2 Samuel 6:12-15). Thus Jews and Christians sing in the Hebrew book of prayer, "Let [us] praise [God's] name with dancing" (Psalm 149:3). David's public burst into dancing was so unselfconsciously gleeful that it embarrassed his wife: This week of Advent reminds us that we too are invited to embody fearless, raucous, delighted joy in God.

Meditation 2: The prophet Isaiah proclaimed the coming messiah of Israel who would one day bring all people into God's covenant: "Sing heavens! Shout for joy, earth! Let the mountains burst into song!" (Isaiah 49:13) As people celebrated his last entry into Jerusalem with cries of "Hosanna" (rescue, save or help us), Jesus too once proclaimed "even the stones would shout out" if people remained silent (Luke 19:40). In Psalm 19, we pray with joy that even the skies proclaim God's glory and handiwork: All of creation itself rejoices praising God. This week, when words or even feelings of joy fail us, we can trust that creation itself will rejoice in God.

Meditation 3: During Advent, we remember the angel Gabriel's promise to the elderly parents of John the Baptist that in their childless age, they would finally have a son, one especially filled with God's Holy Spirit: "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice" (Luke 1:14). Zechariah, the father-to-be, did not embrace this joy immediately but naturally doubted due to the circumstances: "How can I be sure of this?" (Luke 1:18) He lost the ability to speak and remained silent until after the birth, when the couple's neighbor and relatives shared their joy at God's great mercy demonstrated in this miraculous birth (Luke 1:58). After writing the name the angel had given him for the child, "John," Zechariah's "mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he [finally] began to speak [again], praising God" (Luke 1:64). This week reminds us that our joy need not make sense nor are we ultimately limited by our own seasons of inability to rejoice. Joy can sometimes be a gift of God that erupts from us in spite of our doubts and silence.

Meditation 4: When the first angel appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem to announce the nearby birth of the long-awaited Jewish messiah, "everything shone bright with the glory of the Lord," and this supernatural radiance really scared them (Luke 2:9). After the angel reassured them, "Do not be afraid. I bring good news that will bring great joy for all people," a whole heavenly choir joined in, singing praises to God - rejoicing (Luke 2:13). The shepherds hurried to find Jesus as they had been directed, and once they had seen the infant and holy family, they too rejoiced, singing praises to God proclaiming God's peace for all people. Though universal peace has not yet come, we who celebrate the birth of Jesus also praise God for it - for what we believe though have not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1).

Meditation 5: In the hills surrounding Bethlehem, shepherds guarded sheep from animal predators and human thieves, much as earlier Hebrew shepherds Rachel, Jacob and David had centuries before. Jesus, too, identified as a shepherd, just as Micah had foretold: "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and they know me, and I am willing to die for them" (John 10:14-15). As we meditate this week on the shepherds who rejoiced at Jesus' birth, we also remember Jesus as God's anointed shepherd of the human flock of ALL God's children and remember that God desires us NOT to prey on one another but rather to be protected from all harm.

Meditation 6: The shepherds' response to all they had heard and seen was not only to praise God and proclaim peace but to share the good news of God's love embodied in the Christ child with everyone they encountered: "All who heard the message were amazed at what the shepherds told them" (Luke 2:18). As in the example of these shepherds, the outcome of all the previous hope, preparation and joy of Advent for us today is likewise to proclaim and share God's love with all people.

Meditation 7: When the prophet Simeon saw the infant Jesus presented at the Temple, he realized God's promises in private prayer that the messiah would be present with him in his own lifetime had been fulfilled. Just as the long-silent father of John the Baptist had on finally seeing his infant son, Simeon too spontaneously burst into praise (Luke 2:28-32). Likewise the psalms encourage ALL believers to rejoice in this way: "Sing to the Lord a new song" (Psalm 96:1). Even when we have struggled to speak of joy before, this week of Advent reminds us that we can sing a new song of joy and praise for the presence of God among us.