Culture At Large

Advent All Around: Modern shepherds and simple joy

Jeff Munroe

This is the third installment in Advent All Around, a Think Christian series that sees reflections of Advent in the culture at large. Previous pieces appeared on the first and second Sundays of Advent.

We light the third advent candle today - the curiously pink candle - for the shepherds and the quality of joy.

Friends from Europe were visiting and after a long day we were discussing what to do for dinner. Sergio, whose family is from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, said, “My father was a shepherd. Like him, I am a simple man. If I have some bread, a piece of cheese and a glass of wine I’ll be happy.”

My father was a shepherd! Have you ever heard someone say that? How many shepherds or shepherds’ sons do you know?

Later that night, a smiling Sergio had his bread, cheese and wine. And I learned a lesson about joy. There is a relationship between joy and simplicity. The more we have, the more cluttered our lives become, the more difficult it is to find that elusive combination of delight, satisfaction and well-being known as joy.

Here’s my life too often: I have 300 channels on my television and am bored that there’s nothing on. I have hundreds of Facebook friends but precious few people I really share my life with. There are multiple cell phones, land lines, televisions, PCs, laptops and an iPad in my house, yet I feel increasingly out of touch. And Christmas? Well, Christmas can become a seemingly endless must-do list of tasks that have little relationship to joy. Amid the often unfulfilling complexity of modern life, I am reminded of the elegant simplicity of figures like the shepherds in Luke 2, who cannot contain their joy after what they’ve seen in Bethlehem. I envy them.

We strike a pink candle to remember those shepherds. Purple, the color of royalty and also the color of penitence and suffering, is the usual color of Advent, and its use links this season to Lent. The purple is there to remind us that essentially the savior comes into the world to die. But the third candle is pink, the color of joy. Jesus dies but he doesn’t stay dead. In some traditions today is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice,” as found in Paul’s wonderful refrain in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Three candles are lit and the darkness and gloom have almost been entirely driven away. Hope is giving way to expectation - we don’t just hope the child will be born on some distant day, we anticipate the child being born soon. The third candle is pink to remind us this season isn’t all sackcloth and ashes - it’s about time to have a party. “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy . . . “

I have a friend named Duane who has the most endearing emotional affectation - he can’t help but cry when he hears good news. He can sit stoically and hold it all together when he hears bad news, but he comes undone at good news. It’s quite moving to be with Duane and watch him start weeping with joy. Duane is the pink candle on a purple wreath - amid his tears there is great laughter.

We light the third advent candle today for the shepherds and the quality of joy. I hope you can, as my pastor says, “turn off the Christmas machine” and experience joy. All you really need is some bread, a piece of cheese and maybe a glass of wine. Think about those simple shepherds on a Judean hillside centuries ago, thrilled with delight at the great news they had heard. Shed a tear, if you’re like Duane, or, if you are more like me, just smile at the goodness of it.

(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology, Worship, Christmas & Easter