Week Three: Sunday
In the Christian tradition, the focus or theme of the third week of the four-week season of Advent is joy. In this dark time of year, in a “holiday” season that for many of us will be different from what it has ever been before, where do we find joy? If this is our first winter season without a loved one because of death or because of the boundaries and safeguards of the pandemic, or if this is a time of year that conjures up memories of those we have lost along the way, how can we expect joy? Isn’t missing someone or grieving for what or who has been lost antithetical to joy? Can we grieve and be joyful? The answer depends on how we define joy.
Happiness and joy are not synonymous, though we usually think of them that way. Happiness is based on things outside of us—we are happy with a good meal, a nice day, a job well-done, a child who excels, a Christmas gift, a pleasant vacation. Happiness, however, is temporary. Joy is something deeper; joy is an assurance of a truth deep within us which external circumstances cannot change. One wise guide for us in this area is Henri Nouwen (d.1996), a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian who spent the last ten years of his life working in a group home with mentally and physically disabled adults. He believed that while happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” Unconditionally loved, just as we are, no matter what. That kind of love is something we find difficult to offer and sometimes even more difficult to receive. Yet being anchored to Love is the definition of joy.
Yes, we can grieve losses and still be joyful, as foreign as that sounds. In fact, if joy is the anchor that binds us to that who is Beyond us, that who loves us completely, it may be the only way through grief. This fallow time of year is an opportunity to honor our feelings of loss while experiencing that kind of quiet joy that emanates from the Creator who dwells in our own holy of holies, the sanctuary of our hearts. Joy is not often raucous. It is, instead, a sure and certain connection to the eternal truth that we were created simply because we were desired. We can know we are loved because we are. May we take time to sit with that truth this Joyful Sunday and hear it repeat itself, “You are beloved, you are beloved, beyond space and time, you are beloved,” in the beating of our hearts. Blessings to you.