(Pause for silence)
That's it, isn't it? That absolute quiet. Let's try that again.
Sigh. There's nothing quite like it.
It's even greater in the country, as many of us know well.
Imagine those shepherds, out there under the stars—
not in the snow, mind you, the average high for Bethlehem in December being 74,
but perhaps with a huge moon shining everywhere; all is silence.
Still, still, still...except for the music of the spheres.
And then suddenly...crash, bang, thunder,
choirs of angels spinning, dancing, singing in incredible multi-voiced harmony,
and the light...so dazzling and bright that the eyes cannot adjust
and the face is averted, shielded.
And from the midst of this astonishing,
bewildering, frightening apparition
comes a voice: "Do not be afraid: I bring you good news of great joy."
Do not be afraid! Huh. I’ll bet they soiled their caftans.
I imagine the only thing that kept the shepherds
from hightailing it over the nearest hill was exactly that: fear;
they were most likely frozen in place, afraid for their lives.
Isn't it that way for most of us?
At moments of great joy, don't we often look over our shoulder for the punch line,
the reality show camera that will prove it all a joke?
We are frightened to death that the joy offered us may not last,
that it is at best merely transitory, at worst an illusion.
Maybe that's why the shepherds are in such a hurry to get to the stable.
Probably what they said to each other, once the angels had disappeared,
was less "Let us go and see..." than "This I gotta see,"
followed by, "Let's check it out!"
And so they go scrambling down out of the hills into Bethlehem,
more in disbelief than anything else,
but with a curious undertone of hope and expectation.
This, too, is not so strange to most of us.
Most of the time we confuse joy with its emotional cognates:
excitement, pleasure, fun, happiness.
But having said that,
I must recognize that joy really isn't like any of these things at all,
except, as C. S. Lewis says, that once we taste any of them we will want more.
In comparison to joy, however, all of these other emotions are mere surface qualities.
So how do we come to a sense of joy as our deepest identity?
Well to borrow from C.S. Lewis again,
we are most often surprised by joy …true joy that is.
Seemingly out of nowhere,
consciousness is raised when joy connects with a capacity to wonder
at the extravagant detail of the divine doings in and around one’s life.
Wonder’s appeal is that it opens up a world to stun and dazzle us
and it offers us as its prime insight that joy is to be had and done
not in some future time when good finally triumphs but now.
Even now in the middle of calamity, crisis, unfinished business,
brokenness, pain and indifference
we are called to rejoice.
Maybe that’s why Christmas has a special appeal for children and the innocent.
So it must have been for the shepherds, I think.
That smelly, rag-tag bunch of societal outcasts, always living on the margins,
had their existence turned inside out that night,
and though nothing of their external circumstances were changed,
their lives were never the same after that.
Off they go, blabbing to anyone who will listen,
singing, full of joy, praising God.
This can be our experience, too, you know.
When our joy is fixed in a source beyond mere earthly human satisfaction,
it is indestructible against outward circumstances.
Again and again, the spiritual witness of all faith traditions
corroborates the paradox that joy may be found and embraced
in the very midst of sadness, affliction, and care.
That stable cave was cold, after all,
and stark hardship abounded for everyone present that night.
But joy enables us to endure disquietude and discomfort
with a cheer that may be foreign to our native disposition.
More than that, joy is contagious; true joy spreads like wildfire.
I am not suggesting that joy is some pie-in-the-sky sentiment out of touch with reality,
nor is it simply some pious wish-fulfillment of better times.
Not at all.
In the sense I mean, brothers and sisters,
joy is the permanent, all pervasive character of those who believe,
irrepressibly active, filled with inward satisfaction and outgoing benediction.
In the birth of Jesus, we Christians say, the long-awaited promise of God
takes concrete form as Emanuel, God-with-us.
In that moment enlightenment took human form,
light came to shatter our blindness;
and through that crack, joy was let loose upon the earth,
all creation sharing in the goodness of our God.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
so we sing two millennia later, imitating the song of the angels.
This God-event opens a space in the world that can only expand into a refuge,
a sanctuary, holy ground, a place of grace and security,
built on justice and righteousness for all peoples,
but most particularly for those on the fringes,
the outcasts, the lost, those side-lined by society.
To them comes the first glimpse of the divine joy,
the first proclamation of the angel's message,
the first encounter with the one whom we call God’s Word made Flesh.
If we are quiet, if we still our busy lives and tune our hearts,
perhaps we will hear it too.
That paean of joy sung into the universe so long ago.
Some say it is after all only a continuation of the first song,
first hummed into existence when God the Source and Maker of all things sighed
and breathed over the empty dark at the dawn of time and light came forth.
A song that grows ever stronger as God breathes in us through all of time
and we add our voices to the chorus as makers of divine music.
It is only that the words become clearer and more distinct this night,
the joy closer, more sharp, more real:
"Glory to God in the highest;
peace on earth, for God is blessing all creation.
Glory to God in the highest;
peace on earth to all of good will.
God's favor rests on all the earth.
Glory to God in the highest."
Joy to the world indeed.
May we find in it our true being, our hearts, our personal center.
May it live in us, transform us, shine forth from us,
blazing to the ends of the earth.