December's Letter from the Bishop

Dear Brothers & Sisters,

“Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Preachers are perpetually out of sync with the liturgical year.  It’s in, as they say, the nature of the beast.  And so, on Maundy Thursday, we’re preparing for Good Friday; on Good Friday, we’re getting ready for Easter; and while immersed in the John-the-Baptist-like message of repentance that dominates the heart of Advent, we’re casting our eyes forward, toward Christmas and the Word Made Flesh.  Thus I find myself, half way through Advent, contemplating Joy.

I’ve just stumbled upon an online article from the English newspaper The Guardian, entitled “Unseen CS Lewis letter defines his notion of joy.”  Apparently a “private owner” – left unnamed in the article – bought a used copy of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain in a second-hand bookstore.  Several years later, this owner discovered in the pages of the book a previously unpublished, handwritten letter from C. S. Lewis to a “Mrs. Ellis,” in which Lewis talks about Joy.

“Lewis tells Ellis in this letter that ‘everything is going well,’ but goes on to explain that he does not mean ‘joy’ by this.  ‘In fact, I meant by ‘things going well’ just that security – or illusion of security – which you also regard as unhealthy.  Real joy seems to me almost as unlike security or prosperity as it is unlike agony,’ he writes.”  Lewis adds,  “[Joy] jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights.  It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep.  My private table is one second of joy is worth 12 hours of Pleasure.”

Lewis wrote these words many years before he penned his memoir Surprised by Joy, in which he deals more extensively with the place of Joy in his life.  (In a bit of shameless self-promotion, I’ll add that Lewis wrote these words 65 years before the publication of my own book, Joy in Disguise [Morehouse, 2009]!)  But Lewis is on to something in this 1945 letter.  Joy is something more than feeling good, or being secure, or experiencing happiness.  It’s deeper, more thoroughgoing.  And it is Joy that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds 2,000 years ago, as they tended their flocks by night.

A shepherd’s life in ancient Judea was not easy.  Shepherds faced long, sleepless nights; predators who roamed the edge of the flock, looking for a tasty morsel; hours of weary boredom suffused with an awareness of danger.  It was to them that angel proclaims, “I bring you good news of great joy!”  The angel doesn’t promise an easier life, or freedom from endless toil, or the elimination of danger.  Rather, he points them to the newborn King and says, in effect, “There is the source of your joy.”

On one level, our lives are not merely millennia, but (so it seems) light-years removed from that of the shepherds.  Imagine handing a first-century shepherd an iPad or a cell phone!  And yet, like them, we face our own versions of long, sleepless nights, lurking dangers, and boredom.  The angel says to us, as to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy!”  And the angel invites us to join the shepherds in a journey to Bethlehem, to gaze at the one for whom the ancient prophets yearned – Jesus our King; Jesus our Lord and Savior; Jesus our Joy.

Yours in Christ,