The Third Week of Advent is all about Joy. For a brief interval we put aside the subdued color of purple, a color that reminds us that Advent is a time of prayer, penance and preparation, and light the third candle on our Advent Wreath, the pink candle. This candle is traditionally known as the “Shepherd’s Candle.” It reminds us of the joy of the Incarnation, when the Word took on our human flesh and made his dwelling among us. The Shepherd’s Candle also calls us to create space within ourselves for the Word to come and dwell in our hearts. Only when we have done so will we experience the joy that our souls long for. The reality is, each of us desires joy, yet many of us struggle to find it in our day to day lives. A big part of our problem is that we have a contorted view of what joy consists of. Sometimes we think pleasure will bring us joy, but pleasure cannot be sustained beyond the activity producing it. Alright, so pleasure won’t make us joyful, but what about happiness, is happiness the same as joy? The problem with equating happiness with joy is this: happiness is an emotion, and emotions change considerably during a person’s lifetime. In the course of a single day, an individual’s emotional state may range from ecstatic to inconsolable depending on the circumstances. Frankly, its not normal to constantly exude one emotion, and its certainly not what it means to be joyful. So if joy isn’t pleasure or being happy all the time, then what is it?
I think the best way to describe it might be this. Picture the Nativity scene, not the commercialized version we see this time of year, but how it actually would have been. We’re talking about a stable with animals in it, perhaps in a cave in the side of a hill. The night is cold and dark, there’s not much light in the cave. It smells. Really badly in fact (having grown up on a farm myself, I can attest to this). Joseph and Mary are exhausted from their long, arduous journey and now they’re sharing their accommodations with some overly inquisitive goats, a couple raucous chickens and a semi-belligerent cow. Oh, and the donkey is there too, somewhat ornery after carrying Mary for so far, and also because he’s a donkey and is just kind of ornery by nature. And the icing on the non-existent birthday cake for Baby Jesus is when this gang of disreputable, low life and otherwise sketchy shepherds show up uninvited to the party. I’m sure Joseph was thrilled.
In short, what I’m trying to say is this: there is nothing in the aforementioned scene that is pleasurable or even happy for that matter. Yet the Nativity is one of the most joyful moments in all of history. How can this be so? Its simple really, Jesus Christ is there. When we make a place for him in our lives, he turns our squalor, lowliness and undesirable circumstances into something truly joyful.