There are some religious traditions that eschew symbols. Part of this dates from anti-Catholic movements and sentiments at various times in European and American history. But even among those groups, who would deny the power of a symbol such as the cross? Not only does it speak to us (inexhaustibly!) of what has happened, but also draws forth from us direction for the future. Even those who prefer the plainest of worship styles or who think symbols have little value have surely experienced the powerful effect of a symbol such as our nation’s flag, with all it represents.
In Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, candles are lighted during the season of Advent. There are readings selected to focus attention on the story being told. Three candles in the Advent wreath are purple (a color associated with both royalty and penance). The third candle is different. It’s the candle of joy. What’s up with that?
The readings for the third Sunday of Advent are always a little bit different than the readings on the other three Sundays. The first two Sundays usually reflect themes of longing, of knowing our need; old Hebrew prophecies and visions about God’s promise to redeem us, buy us back out of bondage as it were, despite our sin. Sometimes those readings bring with them stern warnings about the way that the coming of the Messiah is going to be world-shaking, in terms of how we see things. Mountains leveled, valleys raised. Those we thought were rich we find out are poor. Those we thought poor are revealed as rich. And the idea of who’s in and who’s out?… who God welcomes and uses? The Messiah is going to shake that up, too.
Most years, John the Baptist shows up the second Sunday of Advent, with his fiery warnings about the way that the Messiah’s coming means the end of business as usual. The very presence of Jesus’ words and teaching demand some sort of response. You can refuse him or you can follow him, but you can’t ignore him. And if you’re going to follow him repentance is required. Things have got to change. You and I have got to change and turn from sin.
But the third Sunday? The third Sunday, things change… to joy.
Often, the readings have to do with Mary, and the joy she felt at being chosen by God. Sometimes, it’s the joy of the shepherds, going to see the baby and being told by angels of a joy that would be for all people. In both cases, the joy comes not from something that they have done or accomplished, but something that was given to them. Something that God decided to do.
“A baby, born to lead us out of darkness and sin? You’re giving him to us?”
“Yes, to you.”
William Willimon reminds us that joy is a reflex. It’s a response to something that has happened. It’s not something we ourselves create; it’s something given. “You’ll never hear anyone say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get together and do a little joy… wanna come?’” Joy may happen while you’re together, but it’s not because you manufacture it. It’s a gift.
Theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” Thus, joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.
Because like it or not, God cares about you. Deserving on not, God has reached down to us through Jesus to show us a better way. Jesus said, “do not fear, little flock – it’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
“Who, us? You’re giving that to us?”
Bishop William Boyd Grove said there are certain words that deserve to interrupt all other words and conversation. Words like “The house is on fire!” or “The war is over!” or “Your hostage brother has been released!” These are, he says startling, interrupting proclamations that change everything. If the house is on fire, you run! If the war is over, you dance! If your hostage brother is released, you leave everything and go to meet him!
And what shall we do, how shall we feel when I tell you, “A Savior has been born!”?
Joy. Thanks be to God.
 from The West Virginia United Methodist, April 1992, 11.