Today is the 3rd Sunday in Advent, the Sunday designated with the theme of Joy. This seems like a difficult time to speak of Joy. The condition of our country is confusing and distressing, leaving us all feeling a new level of vulnerability. The condition of the planet seems more imperiled every day because of economic greed and political folly. We’re acutely aware at Christmastime of all the loved ones who will never join us for a holiday again. Sadness is a part of Christmas too, and it isn’t incompatible with joy.
Yesterday I made an exhausting day trip to Connecticut to attend the funeral of my beloved Uncle Wallace, a man who spent his entire life tending plants, creating beauty through landscape design and flower-arranging. The priest spoke in her homily about how Uncle Wallace’s flowers were like gospels in themselves—bringing people into an awareness of the transcendent presence of God through their surprisingly beautiful compositions. Wally loved to include surprise elements—asparagus spears in an Easter bouquet, skunk cabbage along with roses for a wedding. The surprise was part of the joy for him. Yesterday, the church was packed to overflowing with people and filled with a profusion of flowers. He designed his own funeral arrangements, leaving very specific instructions which his colleagues followed with precision.
A funeral at Christmastime is a poignant reminder that joy is not at all the same thing as happiness, and joy is not the opposite of sadness. Henri Nouwen said, “I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope … Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” Paul wrote this letter from prison, and the word “joy” appears in the short letter seventeen times, in one form or another. In this particular verse, it’s in the imperative form—we are commanded quite emphatically to rejoice. We don’t always feel like rejoicing. But choosing joy is not the same thing as putting on a happy face. Joy is subversive, even revolutionary. Joy is the counter-cultural claim that our hope is in the One who is stronger than the powers and principalities. Paul chooses joy in prison. We choose joy in this political time. Repeating Nouwen, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
And yet, we’ve all experienced that joy DOES simply happen to us. That choosing joy by force of will is sometimes futile, but then, out of nowhere, when we least expect it, joy chooses us. C.S. Lewis’s entitled his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. The autobiography tells the story of how Lewis—an Oxford don, leading intellectual, and declared atheist—came to be a believer in Jesus Christ, quite by surprise. Joy, for Lewis, is not so much an emotional choice, as it is a visitation of the Holy Spirit. He’s actually chosen “joy” as the closest English word he can find to approximate a nuanced German word—Sehnsucht (ZEEN-zoocht). Sehnsucht is a profound and bitter-sweet longing, as the deer pants for water and deep cries out to deep (psalm 42). Lewis uses the word “joy” for this sublime experience of the transcendent, this glimpse of the eternal that leaves us both deeply filled and longing for more.
Lewis gave some examples of what evoked this surprising joy for him: “…the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan,’ the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”
What does it for you? When do you feel surprised by a numinous and transcendent visitation of the Holy Spirit in the bitter-sweet longing that is joy? For me, it’s most often in choral music and in large bodies of water. For my Uncle Wallace, it was in flowers.
Advent is a time of “pregnant pause,” a time of longing that is both past and future, both nostalgic and eschatological, for Christ was born, Christ is now alive, and Christ will come again. One of the prophetic texts associated with the season of Advent, Isaiah 35, locates God’s incarnation in both the wilderness of history and of our lives. Joy is like the blooming of the desert. Places of desolation and loneliness are exactly the places where God works surprising transformation.
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.