What is Joy? (Advent 3, 2015)

We are getting closer to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, so it seems a good timing that the scripture reading for Sunday shows us Mary. We see her on a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant.

Elizabeth told Mary that at the sound of her greeting, the child in her womb leaped for joy. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and said to her cousin, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Mary began the speech for which she is famous. In English we read the opening line as “My soul magnifies the Lord”. In latin, the first word is Magnificat, which is related to the word “magnify”, and means praise. Mary sang that her spirit rejoiced in God, her Saviour. To rejoice means to see joy, or to feel joy, to be joyful.

Today we lit the Advent candle for Joy. It is an invitation to ponder what we mean, when we use that word. I used my Facebook page this week to reach out and ask for definitions.

One of my preacher friends said they had been musing about the same question all week. Another minister friend said joy is having a guest preacher.

Candy, who often guest preaches here, said Joy is her middle name, and it’s been passed on to her daughter and granddaughter. For her, joy is in playing with her grandchildren.

Linda, a church musician friend from Manitoba, whose daughter Jody visited Trinity this fall, wrote, “It’s the feeling you have when you are so involved with something that you forget everything else. “ She said, “that’s what music does for me.”

A woman I met this past summer at a writing conference sent a good quote. “Joy is the echo of God’s life in the soul.” That was said originally by a much revered Irish Catholic Bishop named Dom Marmion, who also said that a person’s love for God is measured by their love for their neighbor.

Wendy, a woman I worked with 25 years ago at a Quaker liberal arts college reminded me Joy is also the perky one in the Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out”.

Have you seen Inside Out? By the end of the story, the bouncy, perky, always smiling figure of Joy has discovered there is actually more to life than being “happy” all the time. To be fair, a Disney movie is not really the place for a lot of deep thought, they have to keep things moving.

Peter Kreeft, a philosopher and teacher at Boston College wrote,

“Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self.”

It is worth saying that last part again. “Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self.”

The beauty of this way of thinking about Joy is the reminder it offers that Joy is not as dependent on outside circumstances as happiness. So we can imagine Mary, large with child, and possibly heavy with worry about the fate of her child, and her own fate, can still be filled with joy.

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic wrote: “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

The idea is that the soul, that deepest part of us, is the most connected to God, most aware of what God has in store for us. Our soul can trust in God, even when our mind can give us every reason not to, and even though our feelings can change with every wind that blows.

I recently read some faithful reflections on the topic of living with joy, even when life’s circumstances are challenging. One author said,

“Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.”

This author offered a scripture quote to make the connection between reliance on God, trust in God, and real joy:

“We’re depending on God; he’s everything we need. What’s more, our hearts brim with joy since we’ve taken for our own his holy name. Love us, God, with all you’ve got — that’s what we’re depending on.” (Psalm 33:20-22 MSG)

Another author said:

“With the continuous updates on what is happening in our neighborhoods, domestically, and around the world, it is easy to become overwhelmed and overcome with fear. But at times like these, I remember to hold onto my faith…. We are being tested and asked to rise to the occasion, dig deep, and be our best selves. We are being asked to place our trust in the Creator. We are being asked to respond from a place of love, patience, and faith. “

This writer also quoted scripture to emphasize the point that we are to place our trust in God. They said, “must go on with a greater awareness and even greater confidence and certainty that is God is with me,” offered these two pieces of scripture:

“And God is the Protector of those Who have faith” [Qur’an, 3:68].

“Certainly, We shall test you with fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient – those who, when afflicted with calamity say, Truly to God we belong, and truly to Him shall we return” [Qur’an, 2:155-156].

One of the writers I quoted, along with her choice of scripture from the Quran, is a woman from North Carolina, named Sajdah Nubee, who describes herself as “Muslim, African-American, Interfaith Presenter, Blogger, Seeker of Truth, Promoting Consciousness, Driven by Intuition, Tar Heel Born and Bred”.

The other writer I just quoted, along with his quotes from the Bible, is Rick Warren, the founding pastor of one of the largest evangelical churches in North America. He is perhaps most famous for his book the Purpose Driven Life.

What amazed me, and brought me great joy, was how similar these two authors sound. They come from very different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. They honour different traditions, and read different scriptures. They even have different names for God, and different ideas about how God is at work in the world. Even so, I hear in both of them the common theme that true joy is found in placing our trust in God. Amen


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