Earlier this year, knowing that the next day’s forecast was set for hot and humid, I set a very early alarm, so that I could set off and photograph the metallic sun orchids. The secret location was so many hours’ drive away, and I didn’t know if I’d even spot them, let alone see them flowering. But I had a map, the weather was set to be the requisite 30C, and the morning routine and drive was meticulously planned for me to arrive at noon when the chances would be maximised. And so, I set off, in search of a rare beauty.
I hadn’t been at the location for more than a couple of minutes when, to my amazement and wonder and sheer delight, there they were! In dazzling shades of cream and brown and blue and green. Larger than I’d imagined, and more beautiful than I have the vocabulary to describe. For the young lad who remembers his first orchid in Crowcombe in Somerset in Year 5, who then spent summer holidays orchid-hunting in North Wales, and later grow up to be the man hunting for orchids across the south of England – this was surely a day to remember.
And so, when it came time to write and send my Christmas cards this year, I had cards printed with one of my own photos from that wonderful day: a metallic sun orchid with just one word superimposed – joy.
Now, the spring orchid season here passed a little while ago, and I lamented its passing in a recent blog article. I shared how my fear of snakes meant that there would be no more orchid hunting for me until March next year. A self-imposed fallow period. Then, just last Sunday, to my surprise I found an anonymous gift addressed to me lying on the vestry table. Underneath my name someone had printed, cut out and pasted a section of that very blog article; the part where I had described how my fear of snakes in the Fleurieu swamps would keep me from hunting the summer orchids. How I had, in effect, closed myself off even to the possibility of further joy, because of my fear.
Anyway, I unwrapped the gift to find a pair of gaiters – for snake-safe ankles! No need to postpone joy – here was an invitation, a dare, to pursue it!
In this season of Advent, we have been reflecting together on how the story of the Incarnation leads us into hope, peace, joy and love.
There are joys that come from pursuing our hobbies, seeing something beautiful, spending time with loved ones, and so on. But this coming Sunday – Gaudete Sunday – we consider the events in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and how they invite us into a particular joy. Not those occasional moments of great delight and wonder. Not the temporary happiness that comes with good winds and plain sailing. Not a happiness that is dependent on life’s circumstances. But rather, the unshakeable joy that comes from a relationship with the living God, whatever life throws at us.
The ancient prophecies talked about this joy that would come. Those who witnessed the events of the first Christmas felt that joy two thousand years ago. And today, we too can know that same joy. Even in the middle of life’s up-and-down rollercoaster.
DH Lawrence said these words, “we’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” It sounds poetic and admirable, but at the same time heavy with grim determination. How do we live, and where is the joy of living?
Mary Oliver said these words, “I saw that worrying had come to nothing, and I gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning and sang.” It sounds wonderful, but not everyone can switch off worry or grief or pain quite so easily as a matter of will. I don’t want a joy that requires mental gymnastics.
George Matheson though, wrote these words while his heart was breaking: “O Joy that seeks me through pain, I cannot close my heart to you, I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain: that morn shall be tearless.” These words resonate for me: I know pain – I may know loss and grief and loneliness and tiredness and weakness and confusion and pain – and yet, I cannot close my heart to the One who brings joy, who is the Source of everlasting and real joy. And so, I will hold on to the joy that is given as a gift and comes as a consequence of my deepening relationship with God. The God who has reached out to all of us in the person of Jesus, who we meet in the first Christmas story.
I will open myself up to joy. I will wear those new gaiters and maybe even see the Spiranthes this February. And maybe next spring I’ll even see the metallic sun orchids again. But, more importantly, I will continue to deepen my relationship with the One who is the true Source of real joy. And in so doing, whatever next year brings, I will be in the company of the prophets who foretold joy, the angels and Mary who sang of joy, and all the witnesses of the past two thousand years who testify to joy.
* Scripture references from Isaiah 35, Isaiah 61:3,7, Luke 1:39-47, Luke 2:10