Today is the third Sunday of Advent. The word advent means coming or arrival - and it is the spiritual practice of preparing for Christmas. The Christian Church long ago set aside the four weeks before Christmas to prepare for Christ’s coming.
During Advent, Jesus is not yet born. He is carried in Mary’s womb, over the long hard trip on a donkey’s back, to look for a place to be born. This is a time of anticipation, hope, joy, peace and love, and then celebration. But before celebration comes preparation! Practicing Advent means we are going to actually do something to make way for the Lord. We examine our lives, read, meditate, pray and work on creating a clean, safe, loving, and wholesome heart where Jesus can be born in us.
It is not enough to know about Advent -- we need to do Advent. This puts God in the center. An awakened spirit is necessary to create the symbolic stable in our minds and hearts for the Lord’s birth. How else can we truly listen and hear God’s voice when it is drowned out by the constant noise of our business and our worries – our justifications, our resentments and our excuses.
Spiritual practice reminds us, so that we don’t forget what matters most. Many religious traditions abound with spiritual practice. Advent was unfamiliar to me growing up and now is an essential part of my spiritual life. Advent is a framework to recall what exactly we are celebrating and why.
Years ago, a dear friend gave me this description of the difference between Holy days and holidays. We often lose sight of the Holy Day – and it gets lost in the holiday trappings engulfing it.
There is a world of difference between a holiday and a holy day.
On holidays, we run away from duties,
On holy days, we face up to them.
On holidays, we seek to let ourselves go.
On holy days, we try to bring ourselves under control.
On holidays, we try to empty our minds.
On holy days, we attempt to replenish our spirits.
On holidays, we reach out for the things we want.
On holy days, we reach up for the things we need.
Holidays bring a change of scene.
Holy days bring a change of heart.
Thanksgiving has just passed. It can almost feel in today’s world as if we’re in a horse race and on to the next hurdle -- an uneasy feeling that we can’t possibly get everything done! But what is it we really need to get done during Advent? We need to metaphorically clean out the stable of our soul and wait peacefully for Mary and Joseph to arrive. We must prepare a place for Jesus to be born or else we'll be so busy that we'll miss Him altogether and not realize it until later.
What? With all the shopping and decorating, and wrapping and planning meals, we need to clean out a barn? YES! - the stable of our soul.
Are you ready? That question will be asked many times in the coming weeks. Ready for what? Ready with cards, gifts, and dinner parties? FINE! But are our hearts and minds prepared? Are we spiritually ready? If we are frazzled, worried and don’t know how we’ll ever get it all done – we need Advent. If we suspect we may be missing the whole reason for Christmas – we need Advent.
The distractions grow brighter and louder every year, and we find ourselves washed up on the shore of Christmas Day like a shipwrecked sailor gasping for breath.
What can we do to make Christmas a deeper observance and celebration? A Holy Day! Perhaps we can look at how the Way was prepared for Jesus.
First, John the Baptist came to prepare the Way -- by preaching repentance. Before Jesus can come in, our way must go out. Repent! The Greek word is metanoia; meaning to turn around, to change one’s direction – change our minds.
Then, Mary! An angel came to Mary. Mary said, “Let it be to me according to Thy Word.” We must be willing to listen, be obedient and open to the Lord’s Word.
Finally, Joseph: he accepted his challenge with courage and hope. He also listened and obeyed. He trusted!
Maybe you are serene and unruffled by this season. I applaud you! But I need a process to stay awake -- to be able to be obedient, to repent and to trust -- or there will be no room in the Inn of my heart, except for me. It is so easy to become the Innkeeper -- NO ROOM -- no room for the birth of Jesus, because we are busy, overwhelmed by commercial distraction, social media, and just living -- taking care of what needs to be done. Then there is no room.
I’d like to share with you the story of Danny. An elementary school was giving a Nativity play. A little mentally challenged boy named Danny was playing the part of the innkeeper. His lines were “No room! No room!”
A teacher stood close by to prompt if necessary. Mary, Joseph and the donkey approached Danny. They asked for a place to stay in the Inn. As instructed, Danny refuse to let them in, with “No room! No room!”
Mary and Joseph turned away, but returned with the same pleas. “Let us come in.”
Danny repeated, “No room! No room!” They went away only to return for the last time. “Please may we come in?” Danny was silent.
The teacher reminded Danny gently, “No room, Danny, no room!” she whispered. Danny was silent.
“No room, Danny. No room.” Silence.
Then Danny burst into tears – and reaching out to Mary and Joseph he said, “You may have my room!”
If we are taking care of what really needs to be done then we can say, not as the Innkeeper – “No room” - But come into my heart Lord, Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee!
What can we do?
Here are some suggestions to enrich our Christmas experience:
1. Set aside time for daily reading and reflection about Advent and the Christmas Story – share it with others.
2. Have an Advent wreath and a Nativity scene
3. Make a surprise gift of service to each member of our families, friends, or members of our community.
4. Set aside a time of family devotions on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
5. Attend church services
6. Give to a charity that speaks to what you really care about.
7. Give time, treasure, talent -- or all three.
An Advent Wreath is one way to celebrate this time and remember what our part is in preparing for Christmas. The Advent Wreath is a circle of four candles, three purple and one rose or pink, and dressed with evergreens. On Christmas Day, a white pillar candle is lit in the center – it is called the Christ Candle.
The circle stands for God’s eternal love for us and all of His creation – as well as the circle of life. The evergreens symbolize life. The lit candles bring light into our darkness – the darkness of our troubled world with its loss, loneliness, confusion, violence and suffering, as well as our very own dark night of the soul.
The candle light reflects Jesus Christ – our Light of the World. The flickering candles remind us that we are called to be reflective lights for each other and the world. Let us burn brightly for one another!
The First candle represents Hope, our waiting with expectation and anticipation – our longing for the birth of Jesus in our lives today.
Hope is akin to optimism in that it seeks what is good, and wills what is good as far, of course, as we can see. We see from a point of view. That’s just it -- a point -- a tiny dot. We know what we want to happen -- and we know that it doesn’t always. Does that mean hope was for nothing? There is a much larger picture, and most of the time we cannot see or understand the long view. We need to readjust our expectations. We see life as we are -- not as it is -- we all have a different picture – a different point of view. God sees the long view.
The Second Candle symbolizes love, the love that the Lord has for us: He came to us as a human being so that we could have God with a face – God Who lived on earth and experienced all that we experience – and left a map by His life for us and said, “Follow Me”. It also represents the love that we have for the Lord and each other.
Since today is the third Sunday let’s focus on Joy – what it is and what it isn’t, how we can experience it, and how we can become carriers of it. Carriers of Joy! Let’s be contagious! To start:
What is the difference between happiness and joy? Are they interchangeable? Is it just a matter of degree? One reference states that the Bible uses the words "happy" and "happiness" 30 times and "joy", and "rejoice", over 300 times.
Lots of things can make us happy, but maybe what makes me happy doesn’t make you happy. Most people think money makes for happiness and yet one study showed that “beyond the point at which people have enough money to comfortably feed, clothe and house themselves, having more money – even a lot more money, makes them only a little bit happier.”
Perhaps you have seen the book "Thrive", comparing the happiest countries and cultures, and the qualities they share. None are wealthy countries!
Also, here are twelve things from Huffington Post Healthy Living that happy people do:
1. Express gratitude.
2. Cultivate optimism.
3. Avoid over-thinking and social comparison. (G.K. Chesterton writes; comparison is the thief of joy.)
4. Practice acts of kindness.
5. Nurture social relationships
6. Develop strategies for coping
7. Learn to forgive
8. Increase flow experiences
9. Savor life’s joys
10. Commit to your goals
11. Practice spirituality
12. Take care of your body
In the lessons we heard about the shepherds and tidings of great joy. Rev. Dr. George Dole writes about joy so clearly and beautifully:
"What the angel was telling the shepherds about was 'great joy.' Obviously, it was not something the shepherds could get for themselves, it was something the Lord was going to give. This would seem to be telling us that happiness is not something that we go out and get, it is something that comes out and gets us."
He continues: "If we could remember the times when we have been happiest, most completely filled with joy, I suspect that this would be clear as day. It might happen when we looked at a beautiful night-time sky and were overcome with a sense of cosmic order and peace. It might happen when we were holding a baby and that little hand grasped one of our fingers. It might happen when we looked at a husband or a wife or a parent or a child and caught a glimpse of the unique, irreplaceable inner angel. Whatever the circumstances, one thing is always the same – the joy that fills us is not something that we manufacture, but something that seems to flow in, often catching us totally by surprise."
The angels said that this good news, or gospel, was that the Christ Child was born. And it was good news – not just for the shepherds, or just for people in the Holy Land, or later just for Christians – it was good news for all people! It affected everyone’s spiritual freedom – the ability to be able to choose between good and evil. Christ changed everything for everyone.
The angels themselves knew all about joy, then and eternally. The New Revelation teaches much about Heavenly Joy – the joy of angels and of the Lord also, Who spoke of His Own joy in the book of John: “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Swedenborg does his best to describe angelic joy. He himself says it is beyond description. He does however say that the hallmark of this joy of the angels is loving one’s neighbor more than oneself.
This is the great gift given at Christmas and by the Lord’s life and resurrection. Christ came for everyone and implanted the promise of joy in all of our hearts.
Henry Ward Beecher said, “The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.”
So how do we encourage that gift of joy that is our birthright and the Lord’s desire for us? Our country entitles us to the pursuit of happiness. Can happiness be pursued? – or like the butterfly, will it elude us until we let it land on us as a by-product and not a goal?
What makes us happy? Many people when asked what they most want in life answer “I want to be happy”. What do they mean? Happiness wears many different hats as it can be dependent upon what is happening in our life – good things and we’re happy – then the troubles or just stuff we don’t like and pop! Happiness disappears as fast as a bubble breaks!
From the movie Cool Runnings about a gold medalist –
“If you’re not happy without a gold medal, you won’t be happy with one either!”
A way of responding to life that sees abundance where others may not, feels gratitude for all that we have, and can endure loss and eventually bounce back up like the punching bag clown. This is a recipe for happiness.
And joy, deeper still, is a delight we feel that streams from God. Joy has to do with the other Advent essentials – Faith, Hope, Love and Peace. The Fruit of the Spirit spoken of in the book of Galatians is “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) These are the qualities that lead to joy.
Swedenborg teaches that “Love is such that its joy is to be of service to others,” (Arcana Coelestia 548) and also, “to feel the joy of another as joy in one’s self, that is loving.” (Divine Love and Wisdom 47)
Joy is inherently connected to love – of someone or something other than ourselves!
Jesus said, “If you keep My Commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:10-12)
So this is how we tap into the joy reservoir: Love God, love each other. And Jesus showed us how.
It is not that we will be happy all the time – certainly life can knock the wind out of us – or just knock us flat. After a great loss, a deep grief, a tough diagnosis, a troubled relationship – the holidays, even our Holy Days, can be a difficult and painful time. Unbidden change in all shapes and sizes can dramatically rearrange our life. At these times, when we feel most alone – and joyless, Swedenborg teaches that the Lord is closest to us and never leaves us. While sadness and mourning do not deny joy, they wear somber clothes now, not the bright trappings of celebration.
Happy comes and happy goes. It depends on so many outside influences. Real happiness though, and deeper joy, are an inside job. We can choose joy over resentment, blame, complaint, bitterness and anger. Joy abides, remains (underneath it all) because it knows a deeper meaning – an underlying trust in the process of life. And joy is grateful for blessings given, even in the face of loss and sorrow. “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Teilhard de Chardin.
Today we are at the halfway mark for Advent. If we haven’t made time or given much thought to our spiritual preparation for Christmas – is it too late now? Nope! Never too late! The Lord stands at the door and knocks – always there, knocking on the door of our minds and the door of our hearts. He is always ready to be born there. It is never too late for us to turn around, to reform -- re:form our lives - to wake up to what matters most! Now is the time! The Lord says over and over again – wake up! If we do this, then comes regeneration – to be reborn – made new – God’s gift of a new will that actually makes us a new creation. God born in our hearts, just as He was born in a stable.
I’ll end with a Celtic Prayer on Joy:
As the hand is made for holding and the eye for seeing,
You have fashioned me for joy.
Share with me the vision that finds that joy everywhere.
In the wild violet’s beauty;
In the lark’s melody;
In the face of a steadfast friend;
In a child’s smile;
In a mother’s love;
In the purity of Jesus.