“As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery.”
So writes C.S. Lewis in his autobiography, which—appropriately, given the theme of this issue—is titled Surprised by Joy.
In this particular passage, Lewis is writing about his experience of what he calls “Joy”—an experience which he says is difficult to put into words but is something like a sensation of the ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden—a reminder of a forgotten and more perfect time, perhaps, or a foretaste of some as yet unrealized future.
He gives a couple of other examples of this experience—the “Idea of Autumn” which comes to him from a book written by Beatrix Potter, for example, and some lines of poetry which prompted in him a particular mood and feeling “with almost sickening intensity.”
“In a sense,” he writes, this experience of Joy is “the central story of my life.”
And yet, as important as this experience seems to him early in the book, Lewis finds himself realizing an even deeper truth about it once he converts to Christianity.
And so, by the end of the volume, Lewis shares with the reader that this thing he calls Joy—“the old stab, the old bittersweet”—“had never had the kind of importance I once gave to it.” Instead, he writes, that “it was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer.”
That thing which Joy was trying to point him to, he came to understand, was not a place, or a thing—not a memory of some forgotten time, or a hope for some future moment—but a person.
And not just any person, but someone who was “both real and recognizable” as a historic individual, “yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.” And not just “a god, but God.”
During Advent and Christmas, we both anticipate and celebrate the arrival of this numinous individual—this myth become fact, this Word become flesh, this God become human. And we give thanks during this magical season for the one who comes not simply to bring us fleeting happiness or passing pleasure, but to give us, once and for all, the fullness of eternal Joy.
All of this, as the title of a beautiful Advent hymn suggests, may be Unexpected and Mysterious, but that does not mean that it isn’t also true. And so, during this dark season filled with the light of Christ, may we once again be reminded of the power of the incarnation, trusting that “God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth, while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.”