I have a confession to make. I lit the joy candle on my Advent wreath a day early. I couldn’t wait because I’d been thinking and thinking and thinking about joy – and coming up empty. Which is a problem because we’re fast approaching the season of Christmas joy, preparing for the birth of Jesus, who would later tell his disciples – and through them us:
These things I’ve said to you: that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.
Honestly, though, I’m feeling more like the John the Baptist of Matthew and Luke’s gospels, when he sends his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or do we to look for another?” That’s quite a change, isn’t it, from our reading from John’s gospel today, where the Baptist is full of confidence, preaching with power about the one who is to come. But years later, he sits alone in a dark and dank cell, questioning his earlier confidence and perhaps his very mission and identity, as he sends word to ask Jesus this poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one or should we look somewhere else?
The movement between these two portrayals of John is from a sure, and certain confidence to a questioning doubt; from fiery conviction to uncertainty and despair. Anticipation to disappointment. Hope to desperation. We’ve all been there, right? Charging ahead with dreams and plans, moving forward with optimism about the future, only to be stopped in our tracks: maybe by illness or injury, loss of employment, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or any of a thousand other things that cause us suddenly to stumble and lose our equilibrium. And when our heartache, uncertainty, disappointment, and desperation isn’t only about ourselves, but our entire nation – as it is now in the midst of the pandemic – the anguish is overwhelming. As it was for John, I imagine.
As it was for the exiles in Babylon, too – the ones Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote to hundreds of years before John. Today’s reading from Isaiah is a breath of good news, of hope – kind of like the news of the imminent rollout of a vaccine against COVID-19. It’s not here just yet, but it’s coming. But this is Chapter 61! There was a whole lot of angst that came before, as they wondered how they could have gotten into such a bad state, humiliated, taken away from their homeland and all they held near and dear. I doubt the words from Psalm 137 could express their heartache any more poignantly:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
Of course that kind of despair isn’t unique to ancient Israelis. Exile is defined as banishment, being forced to live away from one’s native country or home. It’s a condition in which many people find themselves today: refugees and displaced people from Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar, among others; the hundreds of migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border; political exiles such as the Dalai Lama.
But we don’t have to go far to find others in exile. And we don’t have to limit the definition to being displaced from your native land. The holidays can be an especially difficult time for many LGBTQ people who have been banished from their families. Now, in the pandemic, there are those who are living at home, but with limited or no access to community support and, in some cases, quarantining with unsupportive family members.
We know also for the past four years, there are many people who are estranged from family and/or community. And now, in the pandemic, our whole country has been thrown into exile. A virus has forced us to go about our lives in very different ways. We might very well sing, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered the way life used to be.” Is this our home now? We don’t recognize it anymore. How can we sing God’s song in this foreign land?
Oh, wait a minute; this is Joy Sunday. I really haven’t forgotten. So there I was last night with my Advent wreath candles burning down: candles for hope, for peace, and for joy. And I realized that this has been one of the most spiritually challenging Advents that I’ve ever experienced. With everything that has happened just in 2020, I don’t know how it’s been for you, but I’ve had to go a lot deeper into these words, into the season. Spiritual platitudes won’t do – not for me, and I’m certainly not going to spout them to you.
But just as hope is not the same as optimism and peace is more than absence of conflict, joy is more than fleeting happiness. Remember the old camp song: I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy. Down in my heart? It’s not just a dumb old camp song. Sometimes those old chestnuts get at a profound truth. Down in the heart is where we find the hope, peace and joy that passes all understanding.
Now getting down there might not be so simple. We let our hearts get pretty well defended, especially – let’s just admit it – against God. Because if we really allowed ourselves to feel the presence of Divine Spirit within us, well, it could shake our world even more. We might be inspired to do something that would totally mess upour vision of the way life is supposed to be. And I’m not going to tell you that couldn’t happen. But I am going to tell you that by opening our hearts to Divine Spirit, we also open ourselves to deep joy.
That must have been what Isaiah experienced. What else could have caused him to proclaim to the people who dwelled in deep darkness, the exiles in Babylon:
Adonai has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve in Zion – to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.
Let the desert and the wilderness exult! Let them rejoice and bloom like the crocus!
Let it blossom profusely, Let it rejoice and sing for joy!
Those whom God ransomed will return.
They will enter Zion with shouting for joy, with everlasting joy on their faces.
Joy and gladness will go with them; sorrow and lament will flee away.
Maybe some of those who heard Isaiah’s words thought he’d gone off the deep end. There was no rational reason to think that any such thing would happen. But there it was – a song of joy in the midst of sorrow, gladness in the midst of grief.
And that’s what we’re called to do in Advent. Advent reminds us that, against all evidence to the contrary, another world is possible. We can return from exile. New life can emerge from the ruins. In the patient partnership between divine and human, God keeps on creating and calls us to be creative as well. We owe it to ourselves and the world to find this place of joy down in our hearts.
But what is this joy?
The Dalai Lama has said that “the purpose of our lives is to seek happiness,” which he sometimes calls Joy. Thich Nhat Hahn, another Buddhist teacher, occasionally tries to make a distinction by saying “if you are very thirsty and you see a glass of water, you will experience joy. But after drinking the water you will experience happiness.”
Psychiatrist Georges Valliant, author of Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, has a chapter on joy. He starts out by clarifying that happiness is “secular,” “cognitive” and “tame,” while joy is “spiritual,” “a primary emotion,” and “connection to the universe…Joy is laughing from the gut.”
That reminded me of my friend Dolores White who practices and leads laughing yoga. I did find a good YouTube video. It’s not the same as in person, but it will have to do while we’re still social distancing. And then, of course, there are the “disco goats.”
Will laughing take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will act as a tonic for your soul.
Another thing Vaillant said is: “It is so much easier to sing about joy than to talk about it.”
A friend recently sent me a quiz to determine if you’re more right brain or left-brain. She had scored 50/50: evenly divided between analytic, rational, objective left-brain and the creative, imaginative right brain. My results, however, came out 70/30 on the analytic, rational, objective side. My comment was, “Sigh! I’ve really been trying to engage that creative side more.” My friend wrote back, “I think your analytical side is very creative.” My left-brain response was, “I’ll have to think about that.”
Now I realize that my answer should have been “I’ll have to sing about that.”
What happens when we sing is that we go down into our hearts where we can find that deep joy. Of course, it’s better when we can sing together. That’s another of our sorrows in not gathering in person. I hear that the technology is being developed so we will be able to sing together on Zoom. And that will be a joyful thing. In the meantime, we make do with singing along with Michael in our own spaces. and there’s no reason we can’t sing out loudly and joyfully.
One of the things from the laughing yoga video is an exercise at the very beginning. Everyone stands up and brushes off each shoulder. That’s to get rid of all the judges telling you that you look silly or can’t sing well or whatever your inner critic loves to get on you about. Now that they’re gone, you’re free to sing – as a perfectly good spiritual practice. Maybe even dance. Sufi teacher Pir Vilayet Khan asked “Why aren’t you dancing with joy at this very moment? It’s the only relevant spiritual question.”
OK. I know. Not all of us are singers or dancers. But the message of both quotes is to do something to engage that creative right brain: sing, dance, make art, read a poem, write a song, listen to music, create a new recipe, play silly games that make absolutely no sense. Laugh. I wish we had Dolores here with us right now to do laughing yoga. That would be the perfect thing to do on Joy Sunday.
Again, will this take away the troubles of the world? No. But it will create joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you.
And finally, if you just can’t get in the Christmas spirit this year, don’t sweat it. Christ being born is not dependent on our being in the right mood. Some people have very good reasons to not be joyful right now.
A relatively new tradition called Blue Christmas is held at many churches, often around the solstice, the so-called “longest night.” It’s usually offered for folks who have lost a loved one at this time of year. But it has also become an alternative for those who have suffered a loss of any kind, for those who suffer from depression especially over the holidays, for those estranged from their families, for anyone who can’t get into the holly-jolly-ness of the season – a place to not have to pretend and perhaps even feel the kind of deep peace and joy that is the true gift of the Christ child. If you are one experiencing something other than joy or peace during this season, I’ve included a prayer below that might be meaningful for you. Or if you know someone who struggles with the season, it might be the best gift you can give them, to let them know you understand.
We are all in an exile of sorts this year. We may grieve different things, but without a doubt we’ve never experienced a Christmas like this before. The good news of Jesus Christ is liberation from exile – of any kind. We can hold onto that promise even as we sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon. Maybe we can even sing through the tears. Maybe even laugh. Not as denial or irreverence, but as a way to find joy deep down in your heart where the Holy Presence resides in you. And from that holy heart of it, the world – your world – will change.
BLUE CHRISTMAS PRAYER
Around us, O God, the singing can be heard: ‘Joy to the world…let heaven and nature sing.’ This season is to be one of hope to ease our minds, when peace soothes our hearts, when love warms our souls, and when joy comes each morning.
But there are many who do not feel this joy. Some might try, others have given up trying. ‘Where is this joy for us?’ they ask. The world has found joy but some feel as if it has passed them by. Our minds are not at ease…we feel too much doubt. Our hearts are not at peace…there is too much to do. Our souls are not warmed…the chill of death is too troubling. Where, O God, can joy be found? We ask this as we come before you in prayer, opening ourselves to the possibility that hope, peace, joy, and love might still come to us.
We pray for the lonely, that they might find comfort in another’s touch.
We pray for the downtrodden, that they might find relief from their burdens.
We pray for those wrestling with depression, that a light of calm might bring them peace.
We pray for those dealing with stress, that they might find the courage to let go.
We pray for the grief-stricken, that they might experience the newness of life that you bring.
May joy come to the world, O God, and may we grasp some of that. We do not pray for joy that is temporary or fleeting, but a joy that runs deep and sustains us even in moments of despair. We seek this joy in a season that can be less than joyful. O God, hear our prayer.
We wait for Emanuel, God With Us, to come into our hearts once again. May we experience your love in new ways as we in turn love each other. We pray this in the name of the One who is to come. Amen.
*FIRST READING ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11
“The Spirit of Adonai Elohim* is upon me, for Adonai has anointed me and has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor;
to heal broken hearts;
to proclaim release to those held captive;
and liberation to those in prison;
to announce a year of favor from Adonai
and the day of God’s vindication to comfort all who mourn
to provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair.
They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by Adonai to display God’s glory.
They will restore the ancient ruins, and rebuild sites long devastated;
they will repair the ruined cities, neglected for generations
For I, Adonai, love justice; I hate robbery and sin. So I will faithfully compensate you, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. Your descendants will be renowned among the nations; and your offspring among the people; all who see you will acknowledge that you are a people Adonai has blessed.
I will joyfully exult in Adonai, who is the joy of my soul, who has clothed me with a robe of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden brings its seeds to blossom, so Adonai Elohim makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.
THE HOLY GOSPEL John 1:6-8, 19-28
Then came one named John, sent as an envoy from God, who came as a witness to testify about the Light, so that through his testimony everyone might believe. John himself wasn’t the Light; he only came to testify about the Light—the true Light that illumines all humankind.
Now the Temple authorities sent emissaries from Jerusalem—priests and Levites—to talk to John. “Who are you?”
“I am not the Messiah.”
“Who are you then? Elijah?”
“No, I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
“Then who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am as Isaiah prophesied ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight our God’s road!’”
“If you’re not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing people?”
“I baptize with water because among you stands someone whom you don’t recognize—the One who is to come after me—the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy even to untie.”
This occurred in Bethany, across the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.