by Rev. Joan Kessler
Reading: Zephaniah 3: 14 - 18
What has you rejoicing these days? As you prepare for Christmas, where have you found moments of Joy and wonder? This, the third Sunday of Advent, is the appointed time to focus on the presence of Joy. It is not a crumb, according to Mary Oliver, and I think we can all agree on that. Joy is not some insignificant feeling and experience that is easily brushed off the table. It is more than this…but what is it? Is Joy the same as happiness? Is it within us or between us or found on some outside fringes of our human experiences and we catch fleeting glimpses of it? Does it wash over us like a wave, from where it comes we are not certain? Maybe…it’s all of these at the same time.
American poet Jack Gilbert wrote of the experience of joy as something more than just being happy in his provocative piece, A Brief for the Defence:
"We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
Joy, if we understand it this way, is as necessary to life as air and water. We are created to know and experience it. Our brains have these amazing neurotransmitters, tiny chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerves and other cells of our body. We feel joy when chemicals serotonin and dopamine are released by doing simple things like going for a hike, creating and listening to music, petting the dog or cat, kissing a loved one or just simply smiling. Smiling puts these neurotransmitters into action and raises our mood to a more joy-like state.
The conversations I encountered this week saw us wrestle with the differences and similarities between joy and happiness. Some felt happiness was an emotional state and was more prevalent and longer lasting than joy. And others saw happiness as being a contextual emotion that comes and goes when something outside of ourselves makes us happy…like going to Starbucks and holding that pretty Christmas cup in my hands, liquid happiness until I drink it down and toss it in the bin. Joy, on the other hand, has a longevity to it, a lasting quality that is more than the sum of its parts; that joy is an underlying truth and neither good nor bad circumstances can alter. But do we choose joy? Joy is not a crumb! It is bigger than a Starbucks cup. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, Paul would say, and it is an attitude of the heart. It’s presence can be known and felt in the difficulties life inevitably brings to all of us at one time or another and can co-exist with sadness, anxiety, or fear…but happiness can’t. When we recognize Joy, it underpins our spirits and brings to life peace, hope for the future and contentment.
Our reading from Zephaniah, often described as one of the gloomiest of prophets, invites his listeners to sing…to shout…to rejoice! He delivers a message of God with them, Emmanuel, words of hope and peace and renewed prosperity to those languishing in exile. Zephaniah is raising the spirits and wanting to bring joy to the Hebrew people who had experienced great suffering and hardship. A foreign enemy had overrun their homes and destroyed their communities and their places of worship. They were bound as prisoners and hauled over hundreds of desert miles to a strange land, where they were forced to live among people whose language, religion, customs and habits were different from their own.
It seems rather ironic to be reading from prophecy to mark the Sunday of Advent we appoint for Joy. But maybe this season has us feeling a bit like strangers in a strange land as we have one force of nature upon another to contend with. We came through a catastrophic wildfire season only to be replaced with flooding and being dislocated and literally cut-off from loved ones to the west. We honor with our Advent wreath liturgy a time calling for Truth and Reconciliation, remembering the Indigenous children who were collected and removed from their homelands and families to attend residential schools across this country. Joy is not the same as happiness. It lives alongside our grief and disappointments. It is future-orientation that longs for better times and for healing of our relationships…of our planet…but it doesn’t wait to make its presence known. Joy is always with us and it is up to us to cultivate and share with those who are without, especially at this time of the year.
To know Joy is to lean into the longing of God’s perfect shalom, the peace that passes all understanding. It is a deep contentment…it’s a longing, a looking ahead to the Goodness that shows up even amidst the darkest of circumstances and carries us onward. Do we find Joy, or does Joy find us…I wonder…
May Joy be with you, pursue you, envelope you, and sustain you these coming days as we approach Christmas and remember the birth of Jesus. Joy is not a crumb…and whatever circumstances may befall us, as we reimagine our changed plans, the things that have no answers and lie beyond our control and reach, may we not lose the joy that is with us, the music that will continue to play in spite of everything. May it be so and Amen.