I have been struggling with joy this Advent, which is ironic since this year’s Advent theme at church is “Joy to the World.” In 1719, Isaac Watts published “Joy to the World” – his paraphrase of Psalm 98 – in a collection of hymns as a hymn about the second coming of Jesus. In commemoration of this 300th anniversary, our music and worship planning committee decided to join in with Marcia McFee’s Worship Design Studio and focus on joy through all of Advent. We have walked through the traditional themes of Advent (hope, peace, joy, and love) with joy as the thread that holds them all together.
When we first began planning our Advent series back in October, I was excited to spend all of December with “Joy to the World.” Not only is “Joy to the World” one of my very favorite songs to sing at Christmas, it also felt like an important word for us to reflect on. The church (in general) sometimes has a bad habit of trying to squash joy during Advent. We tell people it’s not yet time to feel joy, or we try to make them feel guilty for enjoying Christmas prior to the magical date of December 25. And, that has always felt inauthentic to me, or at least a little forced.
But, last week, as we got closer and closer to joy Sunday, I felt this resistance in me. This year has been exhausting. I have struggled to feel well – nothing major, but enough of a constant struggle that I am weary. For the first Advent in many years, I have had to work to set up my tree, decorate the house, sing the songs, not because I didn’t want to do all those things but because my heart was struggling to figure out how to do all of those things from such a worn out place. How can I sing “Joy to the World the Lord is come” when I so desperately need him to come again?
It turns out, “Joy to the World” wasn’t my problem; “Joy to the World” held the key I was looking for.
The third stanza of “Joy to the World” is the one stanza that does not come from Psalm 98. (You can read more about the history of the hymn here.) Some hymnals have left out the third stanza because of its lack of connection to the psalm, but omitting that stanza leaves out something vital.
In the third stanza, Watts wrote this:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
With these words, Watts goes back all the way to the beginning and to the entry of sin into the world. We live in a world where sins and sorrows grow. We struggle against thorns, both literal and metaphorical. We encounter reminder after reminder that the world we live in is filled with suffering. Jesus comes – he returns to us again – to make blessings flow everywhere that has been mired by the curse.
During this weary-making year of sickness, frustrations, and wondering, I have been drawn to Mark 5 and the woman with the issue of blood. I always forget until I look at the story again that Mark tells the story in “sandwich” form. He begins with the story of Jairus’s daughter, places in the middle the story about the woman who suffered for twelve years, and completes the sandwich with the death of Jairus’ daughter and her raising back to life.
Jairus and the woman with the issue of blood confronted Jesus with their needs. Jairus’ need was urgent and critical. If he didn’t get help for his daughter right away, she would die. The unnamed woman’s need had been going on for so long that she was worn down – both physically and financially – from the load she was carrying. She believed Jesus could help, but I also wonder if she had already consoled herself that if he couldn’t help, at least she tried.
“He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.”
Jesus entered into these places of the curse – into a father’s desperation and profound grief, and into the weary longing of one just clinging to hope – to make his blessings flow. Joy isn’t the absence of struggle, but it is the presence of Jesus with us in the midst of those struggles. Joy was in both the crisis and in the decade-long frustration.
On Sunday afternoon, I walked into the empty sanctuary. The lights were on, but all of the shutters had been closed on all of the windows. I walked past the Advent wreath, and I paused. A beam of light was shining in through one of the shutter slats and had illuminated the Christ candle. In that single, streaming ray of light, it dawned on me that joy isn’t something we experience only when everything is going how we hoped. Joy is the conviction that we are enfolded in the ever-present arms of God even when our lives are falling apart around us.
The solitary ray of light reminded me of Anne Lamott’s reason she made her son Sam go to church – and the reason why I need to go to church – so that we might find “a path and a little light to see by.”
As we draw nearer to Christmas, I am clinging to the joy of Christ’s presence with me just like the woman clung to Jesus for her healing. Whether we are choked by thorns, or weighed down by sorrow, he comes to make his blessings flow – in the easy times, and in the struggle.
Prayer for lighting the first Advent Candle – Joy
Jesus Christ, gift of Joy to the world, I look to you. On this third Sunday of Advent, I reach out and take hold of the hem of your garment, and I offer my weariness at your feet. When I am unable to see joy, give me the courage to rest in your perfect Joy that flows as far as the curse is found. Amen.