The Advent theme for today was Joy. Today was also the day before our region moves into the “grey” zone, the lockdown level of Ontario’s COVID-19 response protocol.
The mood at church was poignant. People were happy to see each other, and were well aware this could be the last in-person worship service for the foreseeable future.
Here is the link to the YouTube video of the service:
Learning Time: Joy
We’re 12 days away from Christmas. In a normal year, whatever that is, that might cause a jolt of panic. We might mentally re-visit our “to-do” list, and worry we’ve not found all the gifts, stocked up on all the goodies, or done all the cleaning, to get the house ready.
This is anything but a normal year. It’s a year that continues to surprise, and disappoint us, on so many levels. We, who are used to getting much of what we want, may be a little cranky.
This morning we lit the Advent Candle for Joy. We are grieving the deaths of those taken by COVID-19, and coming to terms with losing many of our usual holiday traditions, at least for this year. Is this a good time to talk about Joy?
Many of you know my father-in-law died this fall. Ten years ago, his wife, my mother-in-law Doris died. I remember talking with Keith about how it was for him, to face each day without her.
Keith said he’d often have a good cry, and then tell himself he’d had such a good life with her, with so much for which to be grateful. He’d give thanks, and go on with his day.
For my father-in-law, grief and gratitude were two sides of a coin. He grieved because he’d had so much good in his life, for which he gave thanks. When he took his quiet moment to remember, and practice gratitude, he found something deep within, that sustained him.
Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher has said, “Authentic joy is not a euphoric state or a feeling of being high. Rather, it is a state of appreciation that allows us to participate fully in our lives.”
I think that was true for my father-in-law, and I have seen the same kind of sustaining strength in others who live with loss and hardship.
The philosopher Peter Kreeft 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.”
The difference between happiness and joy might be like the difference between junk food and a nourishing meal.
When I give in to my belly’s gnawing insistence that I put something in it, now, a bag of taco chips might do the trick, until it doesn’t. The spicy pleasures and crunchy distractions don’t last, and I tend to feel worse later.
I might have to wait until meal-time for healthy food, but the nourishment iwill build up my body, and help me have the endurance I need to live, and do things that help others.
The 14th century mystic, poet, and hermit, Julian of Norwich lived through three rounds of the plague, and lost many members of her family, and her community to illness and death. Even so, her most famous saying is “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.”
These words were rooted in her sense that God was with her, that God is reliable, and that with God, ultimately, things would work out. This is was not a “head” knowing, but a “soul” knowing.
Rumi, the 13th-century poet, and Sufi mystic wrote: “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
The soul, that deepest part of us, is the most connected to God, and most aware of what God has in store. Our soul can trust in God, even when our mind gives us every reason not to, and even though our feelings can change with every wind that blows.
Today we heard the story of Mary, a young woman who was promised to Joseph, but not yet married. She was therefore baffled and dismayed at the angel’s news, that she was pregnant. By the custom of her time, and by ordinary common sense, this was anything but good news. But something in her responded with joy, and trust and confidence in God.
Mary somehow let go of some of her own expectations, and fears, and embraced the enormous truth that she had a role in a story that was much bigger than her own. And Mary knew great joy.
I dropped by the community pantry this week, and saw the four board members of Project Hope hard at work, unloading crates of fresh vegetables, and boxes of non-perishable food, from their vehicle, and sorting it so they could re-fill the shelves, and the fridge. They were working hard, and their eyes were smiling. I could not see their mouths, because of the masks, but I could hear the sense of purpose, meaning, joy, in their voices.
These four are all related, and are members of a wider family that has known a lot of sadness during this pandemic time. That one family has suffered so much loss, and so much grief, and still there is joy. I drove away from my brief visit with them feeling better about our world.
True joy, true gladness, true meaning in life is found not so much in our own ambitions, plans, desires, but in the larger story of God’s hopes and dreams. When we live out of gratitude, and generosity, and when we reach out beyond ourselves, and recognize we are part of a bigger story, we get a glimpse of the world as God would have it be. And there is joy. Amen