When I was a boy, “Advent” meant small pieces of chocolate hidden in an elaborate, brightly-coloured cardboard calendar shaped like a house. For the first 24 days in December I was allowed to open only one tiny window in that edifice each day to retrieve my prize.
Finding religion as an adult, I discovered that Advent was more than chocolate treats; it is a significant event in the Christian church year. Advent means “coming” and is celebrated during the four Sundays before Christmas. It is a time of waiting in anticipation of the soon-coming birth of Jesus.
As a minister later in life, I would preach each Sunday on one of the four traditional Advent themes: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. I never found three of these sermons to be a challenge. The need for Peace in our world—and in our hearts—is clear. We all Hope for a better tomorrow. Love can easily become the focus of hundreds of sermons. But then there is the message about Joy!
At times, preaching about Joy has been a struggle for me. In the months leading up to December, I would typically conduct funerals for several bereaved church families. Where would they find joy during that first Christmas without their loved one at the table on the 25th? As they sat in front of me on the third Sunday of Advent, how dare I glibly talk about the joy of the season? Similarly, as I would visit an aging member of our congregation whose life is now confined to a wheelchair surrounded by aches and pain, how could I present a message of joy?
This year, we add COVID-19 to the mix. At Christmas, many local families will be separated, not by death nor divorce, but by pandemic protocols advising against inviting out-of-town relatives to enter our home bubble. Visiting will also be restricted for those in long term care facilities and hospitals. Where is room for joy?
Perhaps the answer can be found in understanding the distinction between “happiness” and “joy.” The most common definitions describe happiness as an emotion which is largely dependent on external circumstances. On that basis it may indeed be difficult to find an abundance of happiness during these most difficult times.
By contrast, joy is a quality of experience which is not governed or limited by events around us. If happiness is an emotion, then we can perhaps understand joy as a spiritual experience. The Apostle Paul describes joy as one of the “fruits of the Spirit.” In modern language, he is saying that joy is a result of being a spiritual person. In the traditional Christmas story, an angel announces the birth of Jesus to the frightened shepherds. “I bring you good news of great joy.”
How then can each of us experience joy this Christmas—and year round—despite circumstances that may temporally rob us of feeling abundant happiness?
For me, the answer is to live “in the now,” a phrase popularized by Eckhart Tolle and other contemporary thinkers. Jesus preached a similar message when he challenged his followers to let go of yesterday`s mistakes and not fret unduly about tomorrow`s concerns. The gift of today is all we have. That may be why it is called the “present.”
What can we do with “today”? Again, Jesus directed his disciples this way: Let my joy remain in you and may your joy be full. Love one another. (John 15:11-12, NIV) Despite circumstances, as we give and receive the gift of love one to another, even if only via Face Time or Zoom, or perhaps on the front lawn, we experience joy. I’ve seen joy in long term care facilities and in hospital beds. Despite being profoundly deaf, Beethoven knew that truth when he wrote his glorious 9th symphony, Ode to Joy.
We can also find joy apart from human relationships. Many people have shared with me their “spiritual moments” in a meaningful encounter with nature. Our Lake Huron sunsets are even more glorious this time of year. Many summer cottagers who have remained during these pandemic past months will have discovered the joy of nature’s twilight fireworks. Similar joy can occur when one pauses to listen to a bright red cardinal perched high in a snow-festooned cedar tree, blissfully serenading winter.
During the season of Advent, the Christian community recognizes God as the giver of joy. Jesus brought that message with his ministry and message. Admittedly, some of us will still not be able to find joy this Holiday season. Those people of faith will instead hold steadfast to the Biblical promise of better days ahead: We pray for them that their day of promise may soon arrive.
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy cometh in the morning (Psalm 30, KJV)