We are delighted to have Karenza Mahtani write a series of Advent reflections for us over the next few weeks. Karenza is part of the Accessible Prophecy UK team. Art work is by Carolyn Higgins, another member of the team.
Over these Advent weeks, we will be following a similar pattern to the traditional Advent wreath – 5 candles, 5 opportunities to reflect on different parts of the story. What each of these candles represents tends to vary across theological and ecclesiastical traditions, but each representation offers a fresh moment to pause and connect with God. I encourage you to take these moments as we move through this season.
Previously, we reflected on the tension between what has been promised versus what we can see in our circumstances. The hope and expectation brought out from the Patriarchs and the Prophets, but also the reality of disappointment and lament both in our lives and those who waited hundreds of years for the Messiah to be revealed. However, this point in Advent traditionally represents a key shift, when the purple or blue candles of fasting, repentance and waiting give way to a pink candle symbolising joy and celebration. In the Catholic church, this week leads up to Gaudete Sunday, a name derived from Philippians 4 v 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always!” It is this Sunday, where we consider and meditate on the joy of those who recognised that the Messiah had finally come, particularly the shepherds as they rush to see the baby.
In this part of the story, we see the shepherds’ fear turn to overwhelming and infectious joy when they realise that God’s promises have been fulfilled, but also that they have been chosen to bear witness to this. Indeed, verse 17 and 18 tell us that, “After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them”. In the context of the wider story, these are some of the first people to bear witness to the breakthrough of God’s kingdom after such a long time of waiting – no wonder they were filled with joy! There has been pain, darkness, dislocation, lament, but now we join them in celebrating because the Messiah has finally arrived.
Take a moment to reflect on that scene – Mary and Joseph with the new-born Jesus. The shepherds rushing to witness the events that have taken place – maybe they are crowded in close, or in the doorway as they wait their turn. Perhaps they are overcome with emotion, or like Mary, storing up all of this in their hearts. Spend some time with God today, asking him to show you where you fit in this scene. Are you in the midst of the joy, hungry for a glimpse of the Messiah? Or maybe you are somewhere else? Ask God if there is anything specific he wants to say to you in this place. Take some time now to check in.
There seems to be a clear theme of joy in Luke 2, as we see later in the chapter when Jesus is brought to Jerusalem to be presented to the Lord, according to the law of Moses. Firstly, we meet Simeon who the Bible says “was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit he entered the temple” (v 25 – 27). Simeon was aware of the promises to the patriarchs and the messages of the prophets and he remained one of a faithful remnant who were waiting expectantly, despite the many hundreds of years that had passed without any sign of fulfilment. Moreover, he trusted in the promise that God had given to him. In this beautiful moment, we see his joy being made complete – he recognises Jesus and takes him into his arms, declaring “Now, Master; you can dismiss your servant in peace, as you promised. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (v 29 – 30). Shortly after, a widow and prophetess called Anna, who the Bible says never left the temple and who served God, day and night, also recognises Jesus and with great joy begins to thank God and share the good news that the Messiah has arrived to anyone who would listen. God grants these two individuals the honour of seeing the Messiah and the fulfilment of his promises before their deaths, and the result is overwhelming joy and thanksgiving.
Alongside hope and expectation, joy and thanksgiving are a key part of Advent. We need to take time to recognise and respond, not only to some of the things which have challenged us this past year, but crucially to those things that have brought us joy. Maybe you have seen answers to prayer this year. Perhaps there have been new additions to your family. A great holiday. An incredible meal with friends. A vaccine. New opportunities at work. An impressive flowering season. It could be anything. Whatever these things are, let us not be a people that forget to express joy and gratitude to God for the ways he meets our needs and fulfils his promises to us. A joyful heart is good medicine!
Take a few moments now to pray and thank God for all he has done for you this past year. You could write down individual things (be creative as to how!) or just thank him for the year as a whole and all the ways he has blessed you. Enjoy listening to this favourite Christmas carol and let it spark the joy of the shepherds, and of Simeon and Anna, in your heart. And remember, in the spirit of Gaudete Sunday: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!