When I opened the that present – the one I had been longing for and begging for as a child – it was there.
When I saw her walking down the aisle – her radiant smile lighting the chapel and holding me entranced – it was there.
When I watched as my son emerged from the womb and took his first breath – oxygen filling those tiny little lungs – it was there.
When I said goodbye to my grandmother – watching as they lowered her body into the freshly dug grave – it was there.
When I was searching for a job – unjustly fired from a job that I truly loved – it was there.
Joy. True, God-given joy. It wasn’t always the feelings of happiness, cheer, delight, or glee, but it was certainly something of substance. It wasn’t necessarily the absence of pain, conflict, or disappointment, but the presence of something greater, something more real.
We are all-too-aware of the cliches, slogans, and oft-shared quotes that populate our culture around the idea of joy. “Turn your frown upside-down.” “There’s joy in the journey.” “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We refer to bundles of joy, bursting with joy, jumping for joy, or weeping for joy. We refer to a child or something dear to us as our “pride and joy.”
This week, many Christians will gather around Advent wreaths to light the rose-colored candle – the candle of joy. Many will reflect on the joy of new life and the baby in the manger. Many will no doubt be seduced by nostalgia, sentimentality, and the saccharine joy of Hallmark movies and holiday advertisements. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these. I, however, am hoping for a different kind of joy this Advent. I am hoping and praying for a joy that is more robust, thicker, and substantive. I am hoping for a joy that nourishes – one that sticks to your ribs in those lean moments when the “sugar high” wears off.
In 2014, Yale University started a project to research and articulate a “Theology of Joy.” Through conferences and other gatherings, scholars from numerous disciplines shared their research and sought “to build a transformative movement driven by a Christian articulation of the joy that attends the flourishing human life.”
One of the scholars consulted was theologian and professor, Willie James Jennings. In his paper and subsequent interview, Jennings described joy as “an act of resistance against despair and death.” I must admit, it’s not exactly how I would have described joy. Yet, I’m intrigued. I’m intrigued because Jennings sees joy as something much more profound than an emotional state and death as more than just the physical end of biological functioning. For him, death encompasses violence, war, debt, and all the ways in which life can be strangled.
It is certainly difficult to identify the face of joy when death becomes an unwelcome guest at our holiday festivities. The doorbell rings and he lets himself in without so much as mumbling the half-hearted pleasantries we’ve all come to expect. Too often, our response is to bow down at the altar of this false god, this anti-Christ of despair. Too often, we will devote time, energy, and attention to the black hole of death, who is all too willing to consume every offering we bring its way.
Joy, by contrast, is resistance in the face of this despair. Jennings argues that joy emerges when we choose to make productive use of pain, suffering, and the absurd – taking them seriously, but refusing to make them gods.
Joy can be found when we take our offering from the altar of despair and bring it before the Prince of Peace. When we channel our anguish, hurt, loneliness, and heartache into service, we begin to taste the first fruits of joy. When we invest our life in bringing life to others – to give voice to the voiceless, friendship to the friendless, hope to the hopeless, and justice to oppressed – we begin to glimpse the power of resurrection hovering over the manger.
This is the joy that Jesus modeled for us, after all. The book of Hebrews tells us: “for the sake of the joy that was set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This joy – this act of resistance in the face of despair – sustained Jesus through arrest, an unjust trial, torture, and murder. This joy – this act of resistance in the face of despair – sustained Jesus as he faced the ultimate enemy of death and the grave. This joy – this act of resistance in the face of despair – ushered Jesus to his rightful place at the right hand of God.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that feels more like a joy that is big enough to sustain me through the next few weeks and the upcoming year. That offer of joy feels more like an invitation to the feast of God’s abundance as opposed to the left-overs of the culture’s sentimental escapism. That kind of joy feels like Good News and a message of hope. May we all be filled with such a radical, earth-shaking, life-giving, death-defying joy this Advent season.
Rev. Steven Norris