At the end of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur, the pig, is surprised. Out of his desperate sadness at the death of his dearest friend, Charlotte, the spider, Wilbur witnesses the birth of Charlotte’s children from an egg sac he has preserved—hundreds of children—and one of them he names Joy.
C. S. Lewis’ early autobiography, Surprised by Joy, traces a part of his longing for a satisfaction beyond words; it tells a part of his journey toward faith. The title is borrowed from a Wordsworth poem in which the poet, deeply saddened by the death of his sister, experiences a moment of release—he forgets his sorrow—and is surprised by joy found in nature.
Late in life, Abraham and Sarah despair to think that, after many years together, they have no child to carry on after their deaths. But they, too, are in for a surprise, and they name him Isaac, which means “joy.”
Chapters 1-12 of Isaiah form a unit. The first eleven chapters mostly reflect on the failures of leadership and despairs of a conquered people who long for success but feel that God has turned his face from them. Chapter 12 dares a surprise and describes the joy of thanksgiving for God as deliverer, as refuge, as defender. On that happy day, all will draw water, will give thanks, will sing psalms, will shout aloud for joy that “the Holy One of Israel” has delivered them.
We long for joy. But how to arrive there is a puzzle. Few of us would wish for sorrow, for longing, for disappointment, for despair. But it seems that out of these dark times, and perhaps only from them, may come the surprise of our joy, the knowledge of our deliverance that we celebrate in this advent season. This joy is reason and opportunity for thanksgiving.