Did you know that honeybees dance? They do, and their dance has a name: the waggle dance. But its the reason for their dance which makes this fact truly sublime.
When a worker returns to the hive from a successful pollen reconnaissance, she gathers an audience of other bees around her and does a conspicuous and choreographed series of spins and shakes. “Why?” you ask. The dance is a map. That’s right, this dance—the waggle dance—is the way bees tell one another where to find a bounty. This waggle dance is how bees preserve their colony. They dance for survival.
You might want to watch for yourself. Its so marvelous it may bring you to tears. (Having it narrated by David Attenborough never hurts.) This is the way joy works. It is a map disguised as a dance meant to direct others to bounty.
And the joy of Advent supremely so.
But joy is a tricky dance to learn. We’ve been told joy is different than happiness, and that may indeed be the case. (They are different words, I guess.) Happiness, as explained, is the result of circumstances, but joy … (this part usually gets mumbled). What people get around to saying is that joy can be present despite fair or foul weather—its more durable. Of course, they do have a similar feel. To use a generic: they are both “good feelings.” But go too far that direction and you end up having to distinguish joy from, say, contentment or even pride or, for that matter, gratitude. There is something of joy’s pollen in all of these.
GK Chesterton put it pointedly (as he put everything): “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” I’m sure this sentiment could apply to both male and female atheists, but the point is made. Life presents us with moments that differ appreciably from happiness, and we’re left to wonder what they might be mapping for us. Or are they mapping anything?
What we know for sure is that these moments make us want to dance. Sometimes we actually catch ourselves doing so. As often as we catch ourselves dancing, the world catches us too… in the act. And it is seldom pretty. Many of you will remember the viral shaming of the “dancing man.” If not, here’s your reminder. A couple years back, it came to the internet’s attention that a man had been shamed for dancing while overweight. There was a pairing of photos. In the first, he is unselfconsciously dancing in a crowd. In the second, his head is hung in embarrassment. (Embarrassment being a lingual relative of “embargo”—a cease and desist!)
The before/after was captioned thus, “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”
Our world is so unlike the beehive. We’ve got no place for such dances, waggle or otherwise. This may be why our colonies so often seem teetering on collapse. We’ve had so many of our maps confiscated for incineration.
Jesus was once approached by a group of parents. They were asking him to bless their children; that is, to offer some assurance that bounty might linger about their lives. But they were intercepted by his followers, who assured them the Master had no time for such nonsense. (The nonsense being small human lives.) Jesus rarely gets angry, especially at his clueless followers, but this was one exception:
When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
The emotion Jesus felt was a Molotov cocktail of grief, pain, and anger: very combustable. We might picture him saying, “no, no, no … it’s fine,” but that would be the domesticated version (of the story, but also of Jesus). This was a public rebuke. And listen to what he says, “we must receive the kingdom of God like a little child.” Doesn’t this communicate? It tells us that a series of junctures take place during the course of our growing-up years that make it all but impossible to enter the kingdom. We’ve been deprived of our maps and must come back into possession of them. They are our maps into the kingdom!
I was taking my dog for a walk today and talking to God about this exact thing: “Why is the experience of your love so elusive? Why must my soul stay so troubled?”
As I walked (stopping periodically to let my dog chase a squirrel), I was confronted by return question. Maybe it was from God. Such questions usually are. “Why do you think it is so hard for you to receive love?”
That one’s a stumper.
But, if we learn one thing from our Gospel vignette above, it is that Jesus is pained by this. Jesus welcomes that childlike part of us that would still discover itself dancing. In the end, aren’t we are all just specimens trying to dance?
They joy of Advent is our map to the kingdom. More than that, it is Jesus’ own fierce ovation to draw close to him, be gathered up into his arm, and receive his glad blessing. The kingdom and the blessed embrace of Jesus are one in the same, and joy shows us the way.
As only Annie Dillard could express,
The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny?
It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.
The joy of Advent is a joy of manifold receiving. It is patently for the “malnourished and fatigued” among us; it is for “the weary world.” The one who gets excited by a mere penny is the one who knows such pennies may lead him or her or, really, everyone back to “a generous hand.”
Yes, the joy of Advent is about receiving. It is receiving joy unabashedly, as one meets clues on a scavenger hunt. It is allowing ourselves to be received into loving arms. But Advent joy involves receiving of another kind,
Isaac Watts (“The Godfather of English Hymnody” – #lol!) named it thus,
Joy to the World; The Lord is come;
Let Earth receive her King:
Let every Heart prepare him Room,
And Heaven and Nature sing.
Advent joy is being received by the King and receiving him ourselves. Joy differs from happiness in this key regard: it is always shared between two loving persons. Joy is personal and reciprocal, always. When we sidle up to the side of our Savior, we give him a joy which he gladly receives. We become one another’s bounty. When found in embrace, the map has done its work. Unclutter your hearts! Prepare him room!
When that happens, we are happy. And we are content. And we are grateful. And we are proud, but for all the right reasons. This is the joy of Advent.
So we must learn or re-learn to dance. During his childhood, Watts was prone to keeping his eyes open during prayers. When he was only seven, his irritated father demanded from him an explanation. He answered,
A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.
For this silliness, he was issues a sharp slap on the hand, to which he responded,
O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.
Aren’t we glad Watts could never keep this vow? For Watts, poetry was his dance. It proved to be a map as well. And his silly verses were to became navigational for many human colonies. What is your dance? Is it song, painting, cooking, carpentry? Advent gives you permission to ask that question. Just don’t forget its a map.
It was the Advent joy made the magi pack their bags, prompted old Simeon to shuffle over to the temple, implored old Anna to loiter a bit longer. It was Advent joy Herod could never quash. It was for Advent joy the angels kept interrupting the regularly scheduled programming. And, if the Scriptures are to be believed, it was for Advent joy that Jesus crashed the human drag-of-a-party—the first waggling bee—”for the joy set before him.”
At times Advent joy is merely a dance. Here and there, it is pollen galore. But we are awaited by a not-so-distant land, which flows with milk and also honey. So we cannot lose our maps—though they resemble silly dances; though onlookers may tease.
Advent joy gives us permission to dance, nay, lays upon us an obligation!
Let Men their Songs employ;
While Fields & Floods, Rocks, Hills & Plains
Repeat the sounding Joy
Repeat the sounding Joy
Repeat the sounding Joy!
We dance for the survival of the colony.