Gratitude is tricky. As a child, I was taught this simple grace:
God is great,
God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
You may have been taught something similar? I was painfully shy as a child – believe it or not – and when it was my turn to say grace I was a mess, mumbling out those 12 words as quickly and quietly as I could get away with. When we speak of gratitude and joy, this, I think, is not what God has in mind for us.
We can be truly grateful for what we have – and we know that we are FAR more fortunate than many. The poorest among us have more than most of the world's citizens. We can be grateful for a sunny day, a rainy day, a good meal, a kind word from someone we love, or a smile from a stranger.
We can also be grateful for suffering.
Every one among us has experienced some kind of suffering or loss. And while we may not be glad that these things have happened – who would we be if they hadn't? The “modern theologian” Stephen Colbert puts it this way:
"It's a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There's no escaping
that. If you are grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful
for all of it. You can't pick and choose what you're grateful for.
So, what do you get from loss? You get awareness of other people's
loss, which allows you to connect with that other person, which allows
you to love more deeply and to understand what it's like to be a human
being, if it's true that all humans suffer.” 4
And with Gratitude for all things, we cultivate God's presence, which brings Joy.
None of this is to say that Joy is a perpetual state. It is not to accuse that if you are feeling less than joyful you must not be spiritually awake, or that you don't have the “right” connection to God. It's not to say that if you are not feeling Joy “you're doing it wrong”. At least, I hope not.
1 Henri Nouwen, Here and Now
2 Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak
3 Isaiah 35:1-2a
4 Interview with Anderson Cooper, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB46h1koicQ
5 Psalm 30:5b
"There is No Joy in Advent"
Elder Kathryn Quickert
December 15, 2019
“There is no joy in Advent.”
For years, that was my claim. There was one – and only one – reason for this claim: the Advent banners hanging behind me. These banners were the first ones I ever created. In the fall of 2000 I “received” a design, inspired by what I call the Holy Spirit. I asked our pastor at the time, Kimberly Elliott, if it would be OK for me to hang them in the chancel that Advent. When she said yes, I asked her which four words she would be using that year for the four Sundays of Advent. Peace, Hope, Love, and Faith was the answer.
We hung them up one at a time that year, a new one each week. This was fortunate, as I had not finished all of them in time, and needed a couple of extra weeks to complete all four! And for a dozen or so years, those four remained.
Somewhere along the years, it was made clear to me that actually the word “faith” is not usually included in the designated Advent themes. No, “joy” was the preferred word. Even so, we hung the original banners – one might say in “joyful” defiance of the expected word – every year.
When gently asked that the word on the “Faith” banner might be changed, my standard response was, “there is no joy in Advent”. And yes, this was probably because I am lazy.
It's also because – for most of my adult life - I've been an active proponent of not only “keeping the Christ in Christmas", but also keeping the Christ in Advent.
As a society, we really “jump the gun”, rushing Christmas before it's time for that baby to be born. The greed, consumerism and selfishness can be sickening – or at least, exhausting. This can happen in the Church, too. If Advent is a time for waiting and preparation, why rush that baby before it's time for him to be born? Let's buck our secular, commercial society, and let's be a refuge from all of that noise. Let's wait through Advent. After all, we wouldn't celebrate Easter during Lent, now would we?
I'm not sure how that translated in my head to exclude Joy, but I managed it.
And wait: Joy is not limited to Christmas, is it? No, it is not! The Gospel tells us clearly that even in the original Advent of Jesus' birth, there was joy. Elizabeth's son John leapt in her womb for joy. Mary's spirit rejoices that God has called her to do this beautiful, scary, heartbreaking, wonderful thing: to subject herself to gossip and derision; to be the unwed, teenaged mother of the savior of the world.
I can admit to finding Joy elusive in much of my life. I'm sure I'm not alone. Even if one is not diagnosed with depression, we all have times when it's just really difficult to muster up enthusiasm, much less joy.
We face so many dark things: all one really needs to do is walk down a city street, or read the front page of a newspaper - or, more accurately these days, the home page of the paper's website - to get a taste of the suffering and tragedy our fellow humans experience, every day and everywhere on the planet.
How does one find Joy in a world of pain?
The Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen tells us:
“The more I think about the human suffering in our world and my desire
to offer a healing response, the more I realize how crucial it is not
to allow myself to become paralyzed by feelings of helplessness and guilt.
More important than ever is to be very faithful to my vocation to do well
the few things I am called to do and hold on to the joy and peace they
bring me. I must resist the temptation to let the forces of darkness
pull me into despair and make me one more of their many victims.” 1
“The spiritual life is a life beyond moods. It is a life in which we choose
joy and do not allow ourselves to become victims of passing feelings
of happiness or [sadness] depression." 2
By denying the Joy in Advent, by insisting on putting a decidedly stark Advent first before Christmas in my personal celebrations, I've managed to miss both and ended up somewhat empty-handed when Christmas comes around. There's got to be a different way to do this.
In preparing to speak today, I did a little research on how Joy can be expressed in Advent. Thanks to Mr. Google, I've read a lot from modern theologians. One thing that they all seem to agree on is a definition of Joy as something that can only come from the presence of God.
Joy cannot be found in the world. True Joy is not silly, superficial, or bubbly, and it's not simply happiness. One can feel happy – but one might argue that happiness is largely dependent on what happens to us. Joy triumphs over circumstances. It rises from down deep in your soul, piercing and radiating from your heart. Joy is not the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God.
How else can we understand the Isaiah passage:
"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall
rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing." 3
Without God, there is little to be glad of in the dry, desolate places. And yet, in God's presence - when the rains come - there is rejoicing. A dry dead crocus bulb is not a pretty sight, just a small lump of nothing – but give it time, and water, and it becomes a beautiful blossom: Joy. God is our “time and water”, and - if we are willing to receive it - enables us to become joyful, regardless of circumstance.
The other common thread among the theologians is that Joy is a choice. As Father Nouwen is quoted:
“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy
and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge
that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our
safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.” 4
And so I think that Joy must be something to be cultivated. It is to be tended regularly, watered by prayer and spiritual practice. It is fed by gratitude – for the large and small things, and the wonderful and terrible things
Some churches participate in what has been called a “Blue Christmas” service. It's often held on the Winter Solstice, the longest, darkest night of the year. The focus is to acknowledge the pain and loss in our lives, to sit with that, and to bring God into the darkness with us. A “Blue Christmas” service concedes that we may have lost love ones to death and separation; we may have lost a job, our security, or our health; we may have lost our very direction. To bring God into the equation of loss is to act out in hope, and to understand that God is with us in all things. We remember together that the Light of Christ is with us, and conquers our darkness.
The trick is balance. Don't throw Baby Jesus out with the liturgical bathwater. Light and dark exist in harmony, for one cannot be aware of one without the other. We remember what is embedded in tile just outside these doors:
“Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” 5
And so, a couple of years ago, I conceded.
I took that errant banner, and painstakingly scraped off the letters that spelled out “Faith”. I cut out new letters, and glued them on. And now we have Joy in Advent.
And so we know:
~ Joy does not depend upon our emotional state, but in our connection to God
~ Joy is watered by prayer and spiritual practice, and fed by gratitude
~ Joy is not limited by sorrow or even darkness
~ There is no need to wait until Christmas, to find Joy in all things
Here's hoping for Joy to be found in these days before, during, and after Christmas, regardless of our circumstance.
I'll leave you with one more quote by Father Nouwen:
“Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world
in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world.” 1