Joy emerges often when it’s least expected: When a soldier returns from active duty, surprising his children in the first light of morning; when an unexpected fragrance greets our senses, an aroma of happier years; or when we read Scripture and find a divine promise leaps from the page, exclaiming, “joy inexpressible, filled with glory.”
Joy is observed, for example, in Christmas cards. We see the holy family as icons stamped in gold foil, radiant with wonder. We also see a serene and tranquil Mary greeting the angel Gabriel. This, however, is a departure from Luke’s gospel, where Mary is said to be “greatly troubled” and “afraid.” There is more to this story.
C. S. Lewis has written about the holy visitation. He suggests, “The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear—a Jewish girl at her prayers.”
How often did this moment return to Mary in the coming months as the promised child kicked against the inside of her uterus? And how did the angel’s words fall upon the hearts of Jesus’ grandparents, those blessed men and women about whom we know so little? How did they navigate the nine months of growing shame, the abiding aroma of scandal in a village that did not treat kindly children born of dubious paternity?
In our day of family planning clinics, prepared to correct “mistakes” that might tarnish one’s family name, it’s noteworthy that Jesus was born at all. We recognize, after all, that the unexpected doesn’t always give way to joy. The strife and terror that drove the Holy Family to Egypt persists to the present, driving us into dark corners of fear and shame. And yet Mary found grace to respond in faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” she said, “let it be to me according to your word.”
As Jesus grew into manhood, joyful surprises grew with him. He called followers from the shadows of sin, and gave them himself, the light of life. He opened the eyes of a man born blind. He raised the son of the widow of Nain, Jairus’s daughter, and Lazarus, after four stinking days. Surprise, surprise.
But the biggest surprise of all were the words he spoke at his death. Sentenced to die by Roman authorities, a political casualty, a sacrifice consigned to the ignominy of the Cross, Jesus uttered the most astonishing words, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” How is this? To be forsaken by men is one thing, but God—the Father with whom he sang creation’s song into eternity? Abandoned?
Into the lonely grave Jesus descended, the gloom of darkness, cold as ice—and there he remained. One day turned into the next. But then, on the third day, when the night’s darkness declined to its deepest ebb, a ray of morning light emerged. The grave was suddenly filled with the most brilliant glory imaginable. And a moment later: triumph. The incarnate Savior, manifested in the flesh, who had descended into death, was raised by the Spirit to the heights of heaven.
The joy of Advent is especially joyful because of the way it arrives. It comes amidst fear; it resides in shadows of gloom; it abides with the ignominy of the Cross. But with resurrection power, it gives way to Christ’s presence—light of light, true God of true God, the Savior whose glory eclipses the deepest and darkest of shadows. This is the unexpected gift of Advent, which alone provides true and everlasting joy.