Joy and Sorrow, Excitement and Anxiety: An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 52-53

Today is December 21 and so we’re nearing the end of our Advent journey. The waiting and watching is almost over; the bridegroom is about to arrive; we can see the first inklings of morning light on the Eastern horizon. And yet, for many of us, what we actually find on Christmas morning isn’t exactly something to look forward to. As much as Christmas is a time of joy, excitement, and wonder, for many of us, it is also a time of sorrow, disappointment, and anxiety. It’s a time of year when our sense of grief and loss can be heightened, or when the anticipation of awkward family dinners can rob us of our excitement for the feast. Today I’d like to reflect on this reality through the lens of Isaiah 52-53, and in the Christmas story itself.

While few of us ever hear it this time of year, Isaiah 52.7-10 is one of the possible readings assigned for Christmas Day in the lectionary. It’s a familiar oracle of resounding joy and anticipation. Here’s verse 7 to give you a sense of it:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”

Joy! Deliverance! The time has come at last! God’s people are restored!

And yet, it’s remarkable that this text of joy is followed directly by words we read on Good Friday:

He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity,
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases,
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
(Isaiah 53.3-5)

What’s going on here? How can it be that even in this moment of joy, there is the dark shadow of pain and suffering?

I’m reminded of how Brene Brown speaks of joy being among the bravest human emotions: To be joyful means opening ourselves up to the present goodness around us — and that means opening ourselves up to the vulnerability and risks of losing it. To love something means being vulnerable to being hurt. To be excited means risking disappointment. In a world that is still beset by sin and its consequences, all of these good and wonderful emotions carry within them the seeds of sorrow and pain. One of my favorite Greek words carries this double, bittersweet sensibility: kharmolypia, generally translated ‘joyful sorrow’, but just as accurately ‘sorrowful joy.’

What does sorrowful joy have to do with Christmas? Well, everything of course. Christmas and Holy Week are indelibly linked. It’s right there in Symeon’s words to Mary when she brings her baby to the Temple; right after praising God for allowing him to witness the fulfillment of his people’s hopes, he turns to Mary and says: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too. (Luke 2.34-35) This child, the greatest gift humanity has known, will be received ambivalently; some will rise and some will fall, and he will be opposed, baring the truth of human hearts for all to see. On the human plane, there can be joy — genuine, true joy — but never triumphalism.

This is neither a good nor a bad thing; it’s simply a fact of being human, on this side of eternity, governed as it is by ways and attitudes so far from God’s heart.

And so, if you’re finding yourself feeling conflicted this holiday season, that’s more than okay. It’s to be expected. And it’s not something to be ashamed of. I’d go so far as to say it’s something to wear as a badge of honour. For to grieve means we have been vulnerable enough to love. To be disappointed means we have dared to dream. To be anxious means we care enough to care.

As we wind up this Advent season, may we treasure this mystery in our hearts, feel our hurts and concerns, but not allow these legitimate and reasonable feelings to rob us of our joy. Because there is so much to celebrate.

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news!

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