I remember absent-mindedly kneeling in the pew after returning from communion. Lost in a haze, I focused not on the holiday or the sacrament but on my fears about what the next few days would bring.
I tried to pray through my distress as the choir sang of Mary: “Hail favored one, the Lord is with thee.” But my thoughts connected only with my anxiety.
Surrendering my failed attempt at prayer, I listened, trying to catch my daughter’s voice. As the soprano descant soared above the choir, surprising tears sprung up in my eyes.
These were not helpless tears of self-pity. Those I would have expected. It was not sadness that I felt but a joy and gratitude that flowed from a mysterious world deeper and more wondrous than the one my troubled mind inhabited.
I felt transported to another time and place where sadness and anxiety had no place. They had evaporated like so much morning mist, and a voice within me spoke to my fears: “It doesn’t all depend on you. I am here.”
A sense of well-being washed over me, and I had no doubt that the voice spoke truth. Nor did I doubt that this joy was sheer gift. I had done nothing to produce it. But it was there.
For that moment I lived not in the world of my fears, where all depends upon my shallow insights, minuscule skills and all-too-human weaknesses. I was swept up into an enormous space filled by this infinite Other, who lovingly spoke to me saying, “Do not fear. I will not fail you. Don’t you know by now how much I treasure you?”
And I knew that this larger world was my true home. I sensed what Paul meant when he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. … The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5).
The experience of being drawn into a larger, more gracious world is a central characteristic of joy in this and all seasons. Joy is that “enormous bliss of Eden,” suggested author C.S. Lewis, which stirs a desire for that “naked Other” to whom we sense that we are somehow connected.
For the Christian that “naked Other” has a name: The Trinity, who labors in all things to draw us into that larger world where divine love banishes our fear.
Joy and delight
Ancient Christian imagery likened the Trinity to a whirlwind, a community of complete self-giving in which God the Father loves the Son, who loves the Spirit, who loves the Father, who loves the Son, who …. Round and round spins the unceasing outpouring of divine generosity in a whirlwind that seeks to sweep all hearts, all things, into this community of receiving and giving.
Joy happens when we experience ourselves drawn into the whirlwind, where we know ourselves as more blessed — and more capable of blessing — than we had imagined possible.
Looking through a concordance, one is quickly swamped by the hundreds of times words like “joy” and “rejoice” appear in the Bible. Their typical usage involves the triumph of God over all that opposes God’s dream for the world.
Joy always involves “delight in what God is doing,” writes Eugene Peterson, professor of spiritual theology at Regent University, Vancouver, B.C.
Little wonder, then, that the sound of rejoicing fills the Christmas story, where God’s dream to love and save the world takes on special shape and poignancy. Mary receives Gabriel’s message that God has chosen her to give birth to the world’s savior. She surrenders to God’s desire, saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38).
Her life is swept up in the great movement of God’s love in the world and ecstatic joy pours from her: “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Luke 1:46-47).
When her child is born even anonymous shepherds, watching their sheep, are caught up in this movement as they receive the angelic birth announcement of “good news of great joy for all the people.” Once they’ve seen the infant Jesus they leave the manger, “rejoicing and praising God” (Luke 2:8-20).
With Mary they, too, delight in what God is doing. They unexpectedly find themselves living in a larger world where God truly lives and loves, where their deepest truth is defined not by grinding daily duties but by the tenderness of a mother and her child.
Joy and gratitude
“Joy is a spiritual gift,” says Barry Folmar, Elizabethtown, Pa. “We don’t control or produce it. It always involves that movement of gratitude and appreciation that occurs when we are touched by God’s loving presence.” Folmar, an ELCA pastor, is the spiritual director for the Lower Susquehanna Synod.
Joy is not unique to religious people, Folmar adds. How many ways does God touch every life, every day?
Embracing an old friend, walking with someone you love, seeing a “V” of geese as they rise from a pond, watching the sun set in a symphony of golden splendor, cradling a tender young child, wiping away tears as you page through a photo album packed with blessings and memories — thousands of experiences transport us to that larger world, bubbling with gratitude and joy.
Joy and happiness
Such joy is more stable than pleasure or happiness. “Joy is often confused with happiness, but happiness is a surface quality. It fluctuates with outward events,” says Doris Donnelly, professor of theology at John Carroll Universty, Cleveland.
The root word of happiness — hap — means good luck, chance, fortune. Happiness is defeatable. As your fortunes change and your wants and wishes are frustrated, happiness flies off.
“There’s a stability to joy,” Donnelly says. “It is there, running all the time. It can weather sadness and disappointment. It can coexist with suffering and struggle” because it is anchored not in emotion or shifting circumstances but in God’s constant love and labor.
That’s why Paul boldly charges, “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). And through the centuries believers have attested to the power of joy amid dire poverty and threats of death.
Perpetua, nursing her baby in a dungeon in ancient Carthage where she awaits martyrdom, rhapsodies that her cell is a throne room where she is crowned with the honor of suffering for her Lord. Today, Sudanese Christians, starving and displaced far from their homes by war and persecution, sing buoyant hymns and weep in joy when they gather to worship.
Joy happens not when all is well but when we are connected to what God is doing in the world — loving, saving, redeeming, caring. It’s not surprising that those who serve and share from their hearts find joy. They are connected, swept into the whirlwind of divine love. So, too, are those with a regular practice of prayer.
Perhaps, then, the best way to prepare to receive the joy of Christmas is to avoid the superficial joviality that sugarcoats the season. Instead, we might savor those times when we feel the breezes of the divine whirlwind touch us, telling us that we are loved, treasured and never alone.
Then we might lay our hands to the labor of God to give life to the world. Joy will certainly follow.