How can we be joyful in a moment like this? That is the question Krista Tippett puts to her guest, author Ross Gay of The Book of Delights, during an interview for On Being. Gay’s response: “How can we not be joyful, especially in a moment like this?”
Especially in a moment like this? I’ve been thinking about his response a lot this fall.
How can we not be joyful, especially when we know about family separations and slaughter outside of Syria? When our country and often our own dinner tables face deep fractures? When the medications have stopped working, or when the kids won’t make it home this year? Especially in a moment like this?
Honestly, Joy seems like too much to ask for right now. It is the most difficult of the Advent virtues: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love. It feels like an unlikely indulgence for the privileged, unconscionable in light of today’s news. Anyone with a modicum of awareness knows better than to be joyful. Most of us would settle for peace or simply respite. Grant us a moderate amount of quiet this holiday, Lord. That will suffice.
The poverty of Christmas has become familiar to us. Jesus is born bloody into straw to a poor girl and a scared man. It was certainly not a Silent Night, we know. The ragged shepherds cuss and spit in the hills before they bow and worship in Bethlehem. The raw images, sounds, and smells from that night are fitting for a world yet in the midst of birth pains. The soon-to-be refugee family of Christ understands the pain, misery, and struggle of our world. That is important. Peace was hard to come by on Christmas morning.
But there was joy in spades. We forget that.
There was joy in Royal David’s City that night. It was the joy of a mother welcoming the miracle of life into her tired arms. Have you seen greater joy? Theologian Miroslav Volf has said that joy happens “when we are united with the object of our love.” This is the joy that Mary experienced early Christmas morning. When her body collapsed into the relief of bringing forth human life, holding the object of her pain, there was joy inexpressible. After Mary’s body has been stretched, broken, and humiliated, there is yet rejoicing. You wouldn’t say it was peaceful, but you can bet there was joy.
Next, there is joy for the shepherds:
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people (Luke 2:10).
Joy for the Magi:
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (Matthew 2:10).
Joy for the world:
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (John 15:11).
Everywhere the story of God made flesh is told, there is joy. You know Philip has told the story of the Christ-child in Samaria, because there was great joy in that city (Acts 8:8).
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! Come! Behold him!
Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Everywhere the Spirit of the Lord goes, joy follows.
Ah, but suffering does, too. The Magi’s lives are immediately under threat after they bring their gifts to Mary. The disciples inherit the joy of Christ, but his wounds as well. Early churches like the one in Samaria all become familiar with sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Oddly enough, joy and pain don’t seem to exclude one another. By God’s Spirit, they walk hand in hand.
Joy feels like the wrong response to a world in such pain. What if it is exactly the response we need? In an interview with Volf, theologian Willie Jennings says, “Joy is an act of resistance against despair and its forces.” How might joy be an act of resistance in the face of whatever pain this season brings for you?
At Christmas, Mary is united with the object of her love. Through great pain, she experiences the greatest joy. Through a woman and baby, God is united with the object of God’s love. Through great pain, God shares great joy with all people.
There is certainly pain and anxiety in this particular moment.
But Joy to the World, nonetheless.
Go Tell it on the Mountain, even still.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, especially in a moment like this.
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