18 Dec Surprised by Joy
In 1955 the beloved Christian author, C.S. Lewis, published a partial autobiography entitled Surprised by Joy. That title has stayed with me for decades and comes to mind frequently when I experience an overwhelming sense of God’s grace, presence and joy, like I did this past weekend at Calvary.
It started Saturday morning with the monthly meeting of the church’s Elders—what Presbyterians call “the Session.” The December meeting is special for a number of reasons. For starters, we gather earlier than usual so we can eat together—our end-of-year Christmas brunch—and let’s just say, here at Calvary we know how to cook and eat. Wow. As brunch progresses, we honor the elders who are “rolling off” of Session, and we welcome the incoming class of elders, those whose three-year term is just beginning. We have certain, ah, “rituals” that accompany this time of thanks and welcome, including gifts to the outgoing elders and Christmas head gear for the newbies. This is a dedicated and fun(!) group of people, and it is a privilege to share the leadership responsibility of Calvary with them. Throughout our two-hour meeting, I was surprised by joy.
On Sunday our worship service was full of music and scripture readings, a service of “Lessons & Carols” that we enjoy each year. One of Calvary’s strengths is our music. This is a congregation that loves to sing and also appreciates those who share their musical gifts for the benefit of the entire community. So, we had a Blue Grass version of “Go, Tell It on a Mountain” and a Ghanaian ensemble that sang “Afe Ako Apro” (which means, “Praise for Another New Year.”) We heard “O Holy Night” sung in what must be the highest key it can be written in—and we were transported to the heavens right along with the soaring notes. We had a beautiful duet of “Mary, Did You Know?” and an instrumental trio made up of flute, cello and piano, of “What Child Is This?” A trumpet blasted the fanfare of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and our choir had us tapping our toes to “Glad Noel.” The organist and pianist opened and closed the service with exceptional duets. Joy, joy, joy
In addition to the excellence in music we shared on Sunday, the children opened a window for us to experience the joy of Advent anew, in all the ways that only children can. Some of our boys and girls partnered with adults to read the scripture lessons, and they also participated in the music, with a fourth-grader playing the opening stanza of “Away in a Manger” on the piano before the congregation joined to sing. It was during this song that Mary and Joseph, along with tinsel haloed angels, gold crowned magi, and one very wiggly “sheep” made a visit to the “baby Jesus” asleep in his bed atop the hay bale at the front of the sanctuary.
Most churches do some version of a Christmas pageant each year. Inviting children to actively participate in the story of Jesus’ birth is more than an excuse to dress up the kids in cute costumes. It is a teaching moment, to be sure, to impart to them (and remind the rest of us) the importance of this vulnerable baby whose birth we celebrate. It also inevitably reminds me of the chaotic world into which Jesus was born and in which we still navigate our lives each day. Part of the fun of a Christmas pageant is knowing with absolute
certainty that children, by their very nature, will not stay “on script.” Someone will forget a line or wander off or start to cry. And, that is exactly as it should be. Jesus did not arrive in a perfect set of circumstances any more than our lives are made up of perfect circumstances. Yet in the midst of unruly sheep and smelly cows, a makeshift crib, and a teenaged mother unprepared for what awaited her, Jesus arrived and surprised the world with joy. Jesus is the embodiment of God, and his life is the surest, loudest, most eloquent testimony we could ever have of God’s love, peace and hope. No wonder angels broke out in song and stars shone brighter and bigger than normal. “Don’t miss this!” they were saying, both then and now. “God is doing something special and he’s doing it for you.”
In these waning days of Advent, have you been “surprised by joy?” If not, I invite you to look again at the baby in the manger. Look deeper. Gaze a little longer. Listen for the sound of angels singing, especially if their halo is a little crooked and made of tinsel. Signs are all around you, reminding you that Jesus is God’s love letter to you, a precious gift that offers you hope, peace and yes, joy that will surprise you right out of your socks.