Well, are we going to make it? It’s some test, isn’t it? I have a sneaking suspicion as to what we would all settle for. One of the nicest gifts of Christmas would be not something external, no thing at all. It would be some moments, some hours of release from the pressures and pains, the frenzies and fears that dog the season, not to mention life in general.. Some moments of real inner peace and joy. That is what Christmas is supposed to be all about, isn’t it? Moments and moods that transcend those that dog and depress us at other times.
Someone says that they got a toy for their child that required assembly, as so many do, frustrating assembly skills. This one was made in China. The instructions began, “Before assembling, obtain peace of mind.” That’s a nice goal, “Before assembling Christmas, obtain some peace, some joy of mind.”
But that is what the first Christmas promised. “Behold I bring you good news of great joy.” Even in my days of Sunday School I learned this was part of the package. We sang “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart to stay.” We always sang it louder than the girls. Wouldn’t you settle for that this Christmas? The gift of great joy? Would any gift quite equal that? That’s what Christmas wants to bring us always, even now, this year, if we will let it, learn its special ways.
At first flush, the words of the angel seem almost bitter and mocking. Where is there cause for joy in this world? We hear of the homeless near, the refugees of Dafur starving, the marriages in misery, the aged, lonely and confused, the young people who cannot find their way, the children abused. Where is there ground for any joy in this kind of world? What right does anyone have to be joyful while others suffer so?
But then you could ask the question of that day as well. The night song seemed a bit incongruous in a land where shepherds scrounged to survive, where grinding poverty was the peasant’s daily diet, where the jack book of the Roman bore down hard and where terror and torture were daily occurrences.
Indeed this word about joy became even more incongruous as that “good news of great joy” grew up, for he did nothing much to change the landscape of misery and suffering, of agony and abuse. Nothing immediate and evident in any event, nothing to eliminate the troubles, make of earth a lovelier place.
So if the word has any integrity at all, it must mean that joy lies elsewhere, in some transcendence of all this very real pain and sorrow, in some invasion of another spirit that enables joy right in this midst of this dark and difficult world. It means first of all, faith, the faith that appearances and even experiences to the contrary life, all of it, the good and the hard, is a gift from a loving God.
It meant that for him, clearly. You cannot think of him as depressed, gloomy, grim, giving up on life. A man of sorrows, to be sure, one who could feel the pain of those around him, a man who had to put up with reversal and failure, rejection and defeat himself, but a man of abundant joy as well, who walked with joyful spirit right through this miserable world and who wished that joy for us.
On the night before his death, he struggles to help his friends with their impending loss of his company. “In truth I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but I shall see you again and then you will be joyful, and no one will rob you of your joy. I have spoken this way, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete.”
So how do we get it and what does it take? I find I can’t help much with principles or formulas, but only by telling stories beginning with his. We get it the same way he got it. There is a lot of chatter in certain circles about accepting Jesus. But often the chatterers seem not to recognize that accepting him, means the faith to embrace his spirit, his way through this world. Embrace his stance toward life.
“Good news of great joy, for to you is born this day a child.” To begin with Jesus knew joy because he accepted life not as possession, to be maneuvered and made over, secured against all threat, but as gift from God, good and hard, ugly and beautiful, with each new day. That is the meaning of this good news and this one life. A whole new attitude toward life, life experienced as gift.
But the word “gift” here has a special meaning. When the kids give me the gift of a tie, once I have my hands on it, it is mine. A possession to hang on the back of my closet door with the other three hundred. I now own it, control it, have claim on it, can do with it as I want.
But when the New Testament talks about life as gift, it has something else in mind. It means living each day in faith, fully open to life as gift like the breath you are breathing right now, something you cannot grasp and bottle, hang on to by holding your breath, but can only receive in openness and gratitude whatever its surprises and challenges as it comes to you one day at a time. As we learn to accept life in this fashion in faith as gift, we know joy.
The great English poet, William Blake, says this beautifully in one of his poems. “He who binds to himself a joy, Does the winged life destroy.” If we hug our lives and loves, our happiness to ourselves, if we try to keep our children, our friends, our relationships, our churches, our politics, our institutions, our family life in place and secure, if we plan and manuever to make sure they will be there tomorrow, one day we wake up to discover we’re hugging a corpse – for “he who binds to himself a joy, Does the winged life destroy…. But he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.”
Life lived in faith as gift, surprising gift, incredible gift, ever changing gift – lived here and now. That’s when joy happens. Not when we are regretting yesterday or trying to get a handle on tomorrow, not when we are striving for invulnerability and absolute security, but when we are present to this day, this breath, this miracle, this wonder of life.
So easily we lose it, grow out of it and the joy it can bring. Virginia Thompson writes, “Lord, will he remember the meadow? He was just a boy that afternoon when we walked along the mountain path. Will he remember the bird that flew along at our side, the ant we stopped to watch, the bridge we stood on to observe the clear water trickling over the rocks?
Suddenly we stopped. It was breathtaking-a meadow in the middle of nowhere. His hand slipped into mine. We bowed, ‘Thank you God for a beautiful meadow.’ We talked about life that day and agreed that in the midst of the hassle there will always be a meadow. He is a teen-ager now. Will he remember to go on up the path and be renewed by the serenity of the meadow? …kissing the joy as it flies. “
The gift of joy that comes to the faith that life is precious gift. Simple thing. And the older I get the more I am inclined to believe that changing the world around for better depends upon people who know how to live this faith, who embrace life as precious gift right in the middle of the muddle and mess, and so are able to find real joy in each day’s gift.
That is why I think joy is possible, and joy can often be found in the saddest of conditions, in the most grim of circumstance, in the most joyless of surroundings where there seems no reason for joy. The late Erma Bombeck wrote a column a few years ago which underlines this reality beautifully.
“This is the season when all the list makers come out of the woodwork. The day when columnists look either backward or forward to list their top ten; the ten best dressed, the 10 greatest moments in sports, the 10 top headlines, the 10 most outrageous quotes, the 10 biggest disasters, the 10 top movies, the 10 best-selling novels and the 10 biggest hits. The list that has always intrigued me is the “most admired one.” Every year I look at it and try to figure out what our criteria are for this honor. I see on it a group of prominent men and women we know only through the media.
Today I would like to offer my nomination for all 10 places on the most admired list. My nominee is without age or any particular sex. He lives in a hospital bed, a wheelchair, a rest home, at home in a world of darkness, or a prison of silence. His job? Survival. His challenge? Live with disease and pain. Every day when God opens up a new day for business, he shows up for it.
My nominee never looks back. It’s too painful. He never looks forward. It’s a luxury. He lives for what he has this day…this hour…this very second. My nominee exists on a diet of faith and joy. Occasionally he falls off the emotional diet and pigs out on self-pity, but always returns again to do battle. My most admired entry makes those around him comfortable and goes out of his way to help us deal with problems.
He allows us to see in him that nothing is as important as today and nothing is as uncertain as tomorrow. He offers to us a legacy of courage that will sustain us for years to come. He shows us the way to laugh at the things we can do nothing about. My faceless, nameless nominee will never be on the cover of Time. He will never covet a statue for excellence, a prize for courage, or make any of the ‘lists.’ But my nominee will touch more lives, effect more change, inspire more respect, stir more joy, than any other person you will meet in your lifetime.”
The joy of faith in life and again joy in the love of committed caring relationships, like those we see around that table with Jesus on that fateful night. Is it possible that much of the sadness abroad in the land today is the result of a lack of the kind of friendships that, of course, will mean times of sadness, but also a companion depth of joy, as friendships that will endure over time?
Sociologist John Brueggemann writes of our time, “This is a very difficult time in terms of the problem of meaning. There is more activity than ever before in human history. People are busy. They are in some sense more social – that is, in a quantitative sense, in terms of the number of people with whom they interact. But they are less social in
another, qualitative sense. The networks of relationships today in many cases tend to be thin or superficial. The humor, beauty, spirit, as well as the flaws and discomfort and so many other aspects of our real humanity, become veiled within new forms of communication such as the internet. The honesty and integrity of our vulnerability are muted.” He continues:
“I like the way the music critic Lester Bangs put it in the movie Almost Famous,“The only true currency in this bankrupt world…is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Email is too cool. Our frenzied activity and communication should not be confused with durable community.
But what Jesus is about on that night with his friends is durable community. How durable? Children can help us here. They don’t hold back, erect barriers, announce conditions. Children are good at the gift of all out love and joy. I think that is probably why he wanted to convert us all into children again. In her book, Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle tells of a fireman’s rally held one summer Saturday in her small town in Connecticut. Two of the children brought home from that celebration plastic trumpets capable of producing loud, brayish blasts. Together with these dubious musicians, Madeleine positioned herself on a huge rock to watch the night’s stars come out. Each advent was greeted with a loud burst on the trumpet. The three of them snuggled under a blanket with me, sharing a can of insect repellant and blasting the night air with celebration. Recalling the incident, Madeleine writes: “And I was totally back in joy. I didn’t realize I had been out of it, caught in small problems and disappointments and frustrations, until it came surging back in the love and good cheer of my children.”
I am convinced as we learn to trust the gift of life and life together in relationships of depth and time, a gift we learn from the Christmas babe grown tall, we come to know also the deep hope that life and life together is forever. “He who kisses the joy as it flies, dwells in eternity’s sunrise.” Jesus says to his friends in that final night hour. “I shall see you again and then you will be joyful.” The joy promised at Christmas is finally the Easter joy, the deep inner confidence and trust that enables us to enjoy today, because we can believe that life and love are never defeated, that we will be together forever. . “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for unto you is born a deliverer.” From what? From defeat, discouragement and death.
I have always loved the words of the late E.B. White as he watched his wife, Katharine, planning the planting of bulbs in her garden in the last late autumn of her life. He wrote, “There was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance…the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying November, calmly plotting the resurrection with a secret inner joy.”
Now I like that because I know people like that, people in the midst of the worst that life can bring, who never-the-less find joy in the gift of each new day because they have learned to trust that their life and their loves are grounded in God and so will always have the final word. And in their joy, they grant us joy.
“Peace does not mean the end of all our striving, Joy does not mean the drying of our tears; Peace is the power that comes to souls arriving up to the light where God himself appears. Joy is the wine that God is ever pouring into the hearts of those who trust in Him down the years.”