“And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.” Luke 2:7
When I visited Bethlehem a number of years ago, I experienced an argument between the two spheres of my brain. I stood in a long line in the Church of the Nativity to view and touch “the spot” identified as the exact place where Jesus was born. Philips Brooks had stood in a line like mine decades before and was so moved by the quiet reverence and awe of the people that he wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
I, however, was not initially experiencing that sense of awe. I confess to a bit of skepticism, a left brain takeover, not to the events that took place there of course, but can we be certain that this is “the spot?”
After Emperor Constantine issued an edict of toleration for Christianity (313 AD) and later convoked the pivotal Council of Nicaea in 325, he sent his mother Helen to Palestine to find relics and identify pivotal places associated with Jesus and the early church. One of these places she identified was “the spot” where Jesus was born. Constantine built the Church of the Nativity at that location.
So, my left-brain is whispering “That was 300 years after the fact. Can we be sure this is 'the spot?'” Left brains are so unimaginative.
But when I went down into “the spot” the right brain began to assert itself. “OK smart guy,” it whispered, “perhaps this isn’t ‘the spot,’ but you’re certainly not far from it.” That’s true. God became man at or near that spot. It really happened. I felt an overwhelming Presence.
And I felt something else. It was joy. Joy is a spiritual emotion grounded in the pure reality of God. It’s the soul’s happiness that God is real, has acted in history, and enables us today to live in truth, goodness, and beauty. When you feel joy, you’re experiencing the heart of God.
Joy is a gift from God, not something I can manufacture. There are no “6 Steps to Joy” or a study guide that will make you joyful. In Greek the word joy is built on the same root as the word for grace, and that provides a great clue to its essence. It is the second fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Joy is the result of realizing the truth that you are immersed in God.
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the great Lord of the Rings trilogy, was instrumental in helping C. S. Lewis become a Christian. Lewis was not raised in the church. In fact, he was an atheist. Later he came to realize the logical fallacy of atheism, that is, you cannot say there is no God because that implies complete knowledge on your part. You can, however, say you don’t know, and that’s where Lewis spent a number of years, as an agnostic.
He and Tolkien were both professors at Magdalen College and enjoyed discussing their love of story and myth. During one conversation Tolkien spoke about the symbolic meaning of stories and Lewis, firmly set in his left-brain, replied that Tolkien was right, all stories, all myths had symbolic meaning. Lewis began to assert that the Christian story was in the same class. Tolkien replied, “But Jack, don’t you realize the difference? This one is true.”
The story of Christmas is true. So, joy is not only possible but it is our birthright. Maybe you haven’t gotten everything right about this Advent. You haven’t hit “the spot.” Grace means that with the right heart you can get close and God will take care of the rest. You don’t have to get all A’s in order to feel joy.
Create some space and time in the next few days to quietly listen to O Little Town of Bethlehem. Feel the truth. Experience the presence of God. He really does love you that much. It’s all settled. The benediction of heaven is real. Eternity is yours. Do you feel it? That is joy.
Dr. Terry Ellis
December 17, 2020