Summary: Begins with my experience in an AIDS orphanage
It was near Christmas, but it didn’t feel like it. In Cambodia there are two seasons. Hot and hotter. Christmas is just hot. I had led a study tour with fifteen over privileged Hong Kong students to a orphanage called Wat Opot, run by an American expat in his 60’s. It is difficult enough grasping the breadth of struggle these children had undergone simply because they had no one to care for them, and no shelter, or food, or means of making it before they came here. Although they were blessed to have shelter, it certainly wasn’t glamourous. They had no shoes, they had maybe two sets of clothes and piece, and they slept on straw mats on a large hard tile floor. But add onto all of that that each one of these children, had aids, simply because they were born that way. Each morning they would line up outside the clinic to get their shot, if there was enough for that day. Sometimes there wasn’t. But perhaps the greatest reminder of the context of their situation was the large building on campus that held the Wat’s own personal Crematorium. It shakes you. These beautiful children. Living under the fatality of looming death. They are just children, but each of them will within a year, at least once, maybe more, walk to that crematorium in a silent procession carrying one of their playmates, friends, family…to complete a ritual which they have seen a dozen times. An odd place to find pure Joy. But I promise you, you’ve never seen so much Joy.
In our scripture, we find another odd place for Joy. Heaven has burst open because it cannot contain itself and urgently declared to a group of lowly shepherds that the Messiah has been born. “And the angel said to them, Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town od David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. A manger? A place where animals eat their food? A Barn? A Stall? A king? There? And they hurried to the place where they found just that… a stall full of joy.
Such an odd place for Joy. How is it possible? Actually, when you look closer at this story…it makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense when you ask yourself what Joy is and what takes joy away.
Joy is something more than happiness. Joy is rooted in an internal state that transforms the way we see things. Happiness is often temporary and circumstantial, but Joy, at least in context of the scripture, is tied to a deep internal sense of peace, purpose, and belonging. It is referenced heavily in regards to salvation, and God’s regard for us. Essentially Joy is not circumstantial. I can be in a difficult place in my life and be struggling, and still hold Joy. Joy is the peace we wake up with every morning that there is purpose and grace and hope even in the hard things. Even in the less than ideal places to birth the infant king of the world. Even in those dark stalls.
But identifying joy is not the only thing we must do. We must also identify the thief of Joy, and therefor lend more clarity to the possible reason Christ choose to come in the way He did.
The greatest thief of joy is comparison…who is the mother of discontent. Emmie my daughter is thrilled with a piece of candy, until she looks over at her sisters and discovers its bigger. Then there is great distress in regards to the unfairness of life where two seconds before life was a beautiful gift. Comparison and discontent shift our focus…and robs our joy. And it isn’t just in children. Someone once wrote, Self-pity is a limiting indulgence. We only know if we are struggling in comparison to another. To pity oneself is to shut out the world that has gone before…to silence the gas cambers of Aushwitz, or mute the killing fields, or turn your eyes from the empty arms of a childless mother to your own tiny pain.
We compare our faces, our body, our cars, our status, our houses, our personalities, our privileges, our characters, our way with people, our way with words, our talents, our image…we are in constant comparison and very little Joy. One of the greatest gifts that life has to give us. Is the gift of pain and struggle. In which we are forcibly stripped of all we put stock in and left with the essentials of what really matters. The people who have experienced great loss, great struggle, and risen above bitterness to betterment are the people who undoubtedly hold the most Joy.