One of the first words that caught my attention when I began to figure out what was appropriate to share about Joy in Advent was the word “When”. The statement went something like “We will know the Joy of the Christian life when Jesus comes again”. The implication is that Joy is something that must be put off to some indeterminate point in the future. For some that is the whole message of the season of Advent – not a celebration of the eminent birth of the Christ child but a second shoe falling, the anticipation of a longed for second coming that has been the exit off the freeway of ethical and responsible life for many Christians, that is, all I have to do is keep the faith, baby, until Christ comes again and takes me away from all this. If you take that as gospel, there has been no joy in Christianity for over two thousand years. That’s pretty sad.
There’s another way to look at it. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” says the master in Jesus’ parable. “Now enter into the joy of your master”. Those are the words we all long to hear. They are words that speak of a relationship of trust between two. No one can have the experience of joy alone. Remember, “One is the loneliest”… Joy can only well up from the depths of a trusting relationship. It revels in the beloved, not as an object, but as an inexhaustible fount of what is good. Which is to say that joy is essentially interpersonal and mysterious. What does that mean for our lives? And where can we find such joy?
I admit it, posed that way the question is a paradox: because, it is not joy if in some sense it does not rather find us than we fine it! God in God’s ebullience has strewn intimations of joy all around us, spangling the skies and the meadows, mountains and seas with beauty. No saint need descend from heaven to show them to us. For the living God reveals God’s presence in the garden, and yet God hides. Every creature, from the lowliest to the loftiest, is worthy of our admiration, and can spring out at us with the revelation of the One who made them. In the glory that they give to God, and that we give to God on their account, all things are raised to the personal, all are crying out for the other, for one who will “meet” God in them, as God infinitely exceeds all expectation.
But what is it about us that permits us to treat others as if they were just another piece of hardware, or electron bit switches there to serve our needs. What allows us to see nature as inert matter, malleable to our wishes. The secularism in which we swim reduces others, other human beings and other species to biological cogs in an economic calculation, as if the blade of grass was no more than a sunlight-converter that ultimately becomes our lunch. In such a world turned wrong-side out we close off the possibility of joy, and our awareness of God recedes into numbness.
Whenever God shows God’s self, God necessarily also veils God’ self. We cannot wish it otherwise. What God most reveals to us by concealment, is that God wants for us the freedom and the love that joy demands. God wants to shower upon us not simply a human life. We are invited to a spiritual adventure, the life for which we were created, which reaches its perfection in abandonment to the God whose life is freedom and love and joy.
Joy is not an emotion that can be fabricated. The ubiquitous smiley face does not symbolize joy. It is innocuous. At times Joy eludes us and this is to be expected. The Psalmist wrote “there on the poplars we hung our harps for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said “Sing us one of the songs of Zion! And the refrain: How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”‘ (137:2-4)
Joy comes when we live in God’s presence. Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty. Surely you have granted him unending blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the Lord; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken. Ps 21:5-7
Joy isn’t dependent on our conditions or situation. Again the Psalmist writes: For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord. (Psalm 27:5-7) Even in a difficult situation we can experience joy.
She would probably think me a bit unhinged but I saw that this week. Terry Moore’s mother had been at death’s door in the intensive care unit of Holy Family for a couple of days. Her whole family converged in the ICU waiting room. They were told that there was nothing more medically that could be done for her and she would be moved to a regular room and then, most likely to hospice care. I stood there as she was rolled passed on her hospital bed and the smile on her face as she was greeted by all her loved one’s told me they better not count her out. In medical distress I saw hope on her face. James was right: “Consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
Perhaps the idea of conflating the notion of integrity doesn’t seem to fit with the principles of joy, but the Psalmist wrote: Hate evil, you lovers of the Eternal. He protects the souls of those who follow Him; He rescues them from the devices of the wicked. Light is sown in the just; as it grows, it brings joy to the pure of heart. Celebrate the Eternal God, all you who are faithful; offer thanks to His holy name. (Ps 97:10-12 ) Loss of integrity leads to guilt, and discouragement, while honesty breeds satisfaction, and peace.
Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. Jesus’ joy in us. The joy of the living Christ, residing in us, makes our joy complete. Over the centuries we’ve turned Jesus into a buckled down Puritan yet if we read the record, he and his faithful followers were a joyful lot. The image that comes to my mind is that of the group of friends introduced to us in the movie Three Weddings and a Funeral…the Bible intimates that Jesus’ mother had Jesus replace the wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee because he and his pals had consumed what had been provided.
Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” John 15:10-12