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Many years ago now, I was invited to offer one of three reflections on the Third Sunday of Advent—Gaudete, or Joy, Sunday. I was assigned the passage we just heard from Philippians, in the more traditional translation, which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.”
I directed my remarks mainly to people who were not feeling the joy. People who were not in the Christmas spirit. People who were missing a loved one. People who were lonely. People who, for whatever reason, ended up feeling more depressed than joyful during the holidays.
Here’s some of what I told them:
You know that lack of joy you’re feeling? The brokenness and pain, the sadness and loss, the emptiness and confusion? The darkness that seems to surround you?
Well, welcome home. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable—because that is what Christmas is all about, and it’s you that Christmas is for.
What I meant was that if everyone got along all the time, if there were no war or terrorism or hate speech, if everyone had a warm place to live and enough to eat, if there were no refugees, if religion didn’t provoke violence and hatred, if racism didn’t still thwart and kill, if hearts didn’t get broken, and ice sheets didn’t melt . . . , well, then, maybe we wouldn’t even have Christmas.
Because, if not for all that and every other form of suffering and injustice known to humankind, not to mention death, maybe God’s Love wouldn’t have been made flesh, maybe the Light of the World wouldn’t have been born in a barn on a dark night to poor parents suffering under military occupation. If we didn’t so desperately need God’s love, mercy, hope and peace to restore our relationships and repair our broken world, maybe we wouldn’t be preparing to make room in our hearts for Emmanuel, God With Us.
I described Christmas as God’s hope breaking into a hopeless world, God’s peace staking a claim on a world of strife, God’s love binding us all together, and the announcement of God’s joy to a world of hurt. I said that Christmas (along with Easter) is why we can rejoice in the Lord. Always.
The Incarnation is nothing if not a great mystery, and I didn’t want to pretend to understand it all. I especially didn’t want anyone to feel guilty for not feeling all joyful and Christmas-y.
After the service, I was approached by Ben, an 80-something, taciturn Vermonter. He had tears in his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said. “Christmas always makes me depressed, and this is the first time in my life anyone has ever told me that’s okay. This is the first time in my life anyone has ever said Christmas is for me.”
So on this Joy Sunday, more than anything else, I want to give you permission to not feel joyful. I want you to know that the gift of God With Us, God With You, is for you, whatever and however you are feeling.
And as defiant as I want to be, as much as I want to sing my heart out and shout my joy in the faces of those who would keep Muslims out of our country and those who harass Muslims and attack mosques; as much as I want my Advent joy to cast out the fears of those who beat the drums of war, those who call for college students and others to arm themselves with guns, and all who would divide God’s children according to any number of categories, I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy. I don’t want to reduce Christmas to a superficial celebration of the good life. I don’t want to pretend that the darkness isn’t real or to be glib about what we’re up against. I don’t want to pretend that true joy, like so many Christmas cookies and reactive political proposals, can be manufactured.
No, joy is pure gift, sublime mystery, a work of wonder. But it is also a promise. It is also a spiritual practice. And sometimes, at least, it is a choice—to stand tall, to cast out fear, to take hold of life, to defy death and all its agents.
These are especially trying times. From terrorist attacks to hate speech, heartbreaking refugee stories, and another run on guns, the world seems even more unsettled than usual. We have been through the proverbial wringer. And it’s the holidays, with all the stress and longing that comes with the season. So as important as I feel it is to counter the political culture of violence, lies, hatred, and fear with Jesus’ message of love, inclusion, abundance, and forgiveness, I understand the impulse to turn off the news, stop the yelling, and shut out the world. I understand the temptation to settle for joy in the little things while giving up on the big ones.
Christmas is coming. The Lord is near.
How do I know?
Muslims are raising money for the families of those killed in San Bernardino and Paris. Children are writing letters and sending cards. Jews are holding vigils to express solidarity with Muslims. Christian clergy are coming together to make statements of support. African Americans and women are standing up to abusive cops—and making a difference. The nations of the world have come together like never before around climate change—like never before around anything. Online, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have sold out of the new Study Quran (I got mine just in time). Canadians are welcoming Syrian refugees as if they are Jesus come again, with speeches and goodie bags and children singing songs in Arabic. Good people everywhere are loving their neighbors, praying for peace, nurturing children, honoring the elderly, caring for the earth, and pampering their pets. Some folks we thought were down for the count have caught second and third winds. Major newspapers are learning about gender identity and preferred pronouns. Couples of all kinds are falling in love and having babies. Beauty fills the earth, even in December.
And some day—one day soon, perhaps—it’s going to snow. I’m sure of it.
And so I want to make a case, an understated, no-pressure case, for at least a little Advent joy—joy that is both deep and defiant. I want to remind us to make room for the unexpected, the unimaginable, and the never-before-seen. I want to encourage us to be on the watch for the signs, to prepare the way of the Lord, to seek first the kingdom, to be kind and fair, to share what we have, to sing our prayers, and to be on the lookout for angels. Because they’re out there; you know they are.
Yes, the way is hard and the road is long. The forces of evil are real, and they are frightening. But perfect love casts out fear. Our lovesick God has set us as a seal upon her heart, and many waters cannot quench love. Despite the forces of hatred and greed, racism and violence, more and more people understand that we are all God’s children. God is in our midst. The Spirit of peace and love is working even now. More and more people understand that we are all in this together.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. That love-light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, will not, cannot, overcome it. God is doing a new thing. And, as a young girl sang some 2,000 years ago and we will sing next week, the world is about to turn. God will bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry and send the rich away empty.
This is good news. This is great news.
So let us rejoice. God could show up any minute!