Today, we light the candle of Joy.
What is joy?
When I was an Air Force nurse, still young and with a youthful ambition to change the world, I began a master's program in nursing. The first class was a graduate level nursing theory class. For our final project we had to write a conceptual analysis of something. I chose "comfort measures," because in all our patient care plans we wrote "comfort measures, prn" - which might have meant another blanket, a fluffed pillow, an ice pack, a cup of tea, a ginger ale, a soothing word - who knew? What I thought was a comfort measure might not be to the next nurse or worse, to the patient. What are comfort measures?
I've often thought about doing a conceptual analysis of joy, because we talk about it all the time, especially around Christmas, and I don't think we really know what it is. So this is my abbreviated exploration of joy.
First stop: the old trusty Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Joy: 1a: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : DELIGHT
b: the expression or exhibition of such emotion : GAIETY 2: a state of happiness or felicity : BLISS 3: a source or cause of delight
Dictionary.com has a slightly different definition:
1.the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son's success.
2.a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy.
3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety.
4. a state of happiness or felicity.
verb (used without object) to feel joy; be glad; rejoice
verb (used with object) Obsolete. to gladden
Thesaurus.com lists these synonyms for joy (speed read this part - you'll get the idea):
I think we can all agree that joy is delight, happiness, pleasure, merriment, elation, mirth, cheer, gaiety, and all those other words that describe what we are supposed to feel at Christmas.
But many of us don't feel that way at Christmas. And research is showing that people who have the least to be happy about - the poor, displaced, grieving, those with chronic illness or pain, and even the dying - are often the most joyful. Certainly they are able to experience joy.
So what is joy?
"Have a cup of Christmas cheer!"
"It's the most wonderful time of the year!"
"Joys of the season to you and yours!"
Here's the thing - this is all propaganda. It has taken me 61 years to accept that Christmas without big parties, fancy dresses, diamonds, champagne flutes, more diamonds, kisses beginning with k, rocking around the Christmas tree and a new car in the driveway just isn't my reality. Heck, we don't even have white Christmases anymore - and while that might be OK for those of you who live south of here, we in Pennsylvania would still like some of the white stuff and to walk in a winter wonderland. But my Christmases are the way I and my family want them to be (that is what they tell me anyway).
Let's not even talk about coming all ye faithful (where, in this time of COVID would we go?), peace on earth and goodwill to men, and of course, joy to the world.
The thing is, none of this "joy" lasts. It opens me up to disappointment - if I don't get the diamonds I hope for, if I don't have a party to go to or if it is an ugly sweater party that means not only do I not get to wear a beautiful, sequiny dress but I also have to go buy an ugly sweater, if I don't need a new car and wouldn't want someone to get me one that I might not like - and who gets the payment book? So I don't think this is joy. Happiness, elation, merriment, mirth, gaiety, certainly. But not joy.
We sing, "Joy to the world, the Lord has come." But where is the Lord? Is he with the people who are starving? The refugees fleeing their homelands, which is grief inducing enough, but then are losing their children and elders to to sea, to overcrowding and the illnesses that come with that, hunger, and cruel policies that put children in cages? Is the Lord with those who are suffering and dying alone?
Yes - but also with those of us who are just having a blue Christmas and not feeling joyous. Too many of us just aren't feeling it.
Have I mentioned before that I struggle with depression? Joy is elusive to a depressed person - even one who gets therapy and takes medication regularly.
Feeling all humbug-y yet?
God promised joy, so it can't be any of these things because God doesn't break promises. And there are plenty of reasons not to feel joyful: poverty, incarceration, illness, chronic pain, grief and loneliness come to mind - I'm sure there are plenty of others. So what is joy?
In her book Grateful, Diana Butler Bass describes joy as gratitude (p. 139). Gratitude is not an emotion, it is a practice. The emotions of gratitude in non-European religious communities, she says, serve as the foundation of resilience and joy (p. 34). We can all find something to be grateful for, I think: the taste of a favorite Christmas cookie, the scent of a pine bough, the light of the Menorah candles, the smile of a beloved child, or a favorite memory. Even with deep sadness, there are things to smile about, no matter how small and "insignificant" they might be. Dr. Butler Bass kept a gratitude journal. She didn't set out to keep a gratitude journal, but by focusing on the blessings in her life rather than the trials, she found that she experienced more gratitude and, yes, joy.
Douglas Abrams set out to chronicle a meeting between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in The Book of Joy. You'll remember that Archbishop Tutu was a leader in and survived the struggles against apartheid in South Africa. The Dalai Lama was exiled from his home in Tibet in 1959, and has lived in India ever since. Both men are Nobel laureates. Both have experienced deep sadness and grief. This little paragraph does not begin to encapsulate the importance of both men. At the time of the meeting with author Abrams, Bishop Tutu was ill with a recurrence of prostate cancer, and yet these two old friends met for what was likely to be their last meeting. There is a picture in the book of Abrams standing between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu. All three have grins that are open-mouthed - they look like someone just told a hilarious joke, and I love that picture. In the book, the men describe the eight pillars of joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.
Perspective means stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. This entails going beyond our own self-interest. Humility causes us to remember that we are all connected, one to another, and no one of us is more important or valuable than any other of us. Laughing at ourselves (humor) is something we must practice. We're not infallible, and we make hilarious mistakes! Laughing at ourselves and our lives helps keep us grounded and, I think, contributes to humility. Acceptance is facing reality. Once we have faced what is real, we stop wishing for something else (leading to gratitude), and only then can we begin to work toward change if that is what is required. Forgiveness is huge. Anger is toxic - and believe me I have worked really hard on forgiving some things in my life so I know whereof I speak, but that is a post for another day. To forgive, you must name the hurt and grant forgiveness because we all hurt and are hurt, but you do not need to remain in a toxic relationship. The relationship must be renewed or released. Forgive and forget? Forget it - not Biblical anyway. Journaling for gratitude is a helpful practice for the sixth pillar. Gratitude "allows us to savor life and to recognize that most of our good fortune in life comes from others." (p. 336). Compassion is something we need to cultivate in ourselves and our children - compassion is care and concern for others. Generosity takes one of three forms: material giving (money, donations, gifts), giving freedom from fear (protection, counsel or solace and being present), and spiritual giving (teaching, caring, concern, smiling and other types of interactions that improve the quality of life of others).
So, to recap from the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, joy comes from not taking ourselves too seriously and from being connected to other people, even those we will never meet.
I think I wrote in a previous post that Julian of Norwich is one of my heroes (if I didn't, now you know!). Julian lived in the late 1300s during the time of the Black Death in her town of Norwich. One biography I read said that her husband and all of her children perished of the plague, but other sources don't confirm that. The point is that Julian also knew suffering. At one point in her life she was so ill that the priest was called to administer the last rites, and it was at this time that Julian experienced her "shewings." There is SO MUCH in Julian's Revelations of Divine Love, I barely know what to choose. In the "short text", chapter 12, Julian writes that she received a question from God: "Are you well pleased that I suffered for you?" Of course Julian answered yes. '"If you are pleased," said our Lord, "I am pleased. It is a joy and a delight and an endless happiness to me that I ever endured suffering for you, for if I could suffer more, I would suffer."' Julian explores God's joy at enduring suffering, and determines that Jesus' great love for us brings him joy that supersedes all the suffering that he endured. She writes:
And in these three sayings, 'It is a joy, a delight and an endless happiness to me', three heavens were shown to me, as follows: by the joy I understood the pleasure of the Father; by the delight, the glory of the Son; and by the endless happiness, the Holy Ghost....Jesus wishes us to consider the delight which the Holy Trinity feels in our salvation, and wishes us to delight as much, through his grace, while we are on earth....In the other words that Christ spoke, 'If you are pleased, I am pleased', he revealed the meaning, as if he had said, 'It is joy and delight enough to me, and I ask nothing more of you for my hardship but that I give you pleasure.'
Jesus endured everything for the love of us and delights in our pleasure and his love. If we suffer for someone else, do we not experience similar joy? Greater love has no one than this to lay down one's life for one's friend. (John 15:13, NIV) I am thinking of the suffering of childbirth. I suffered to bring my children into the world - and I would do it all again if I could (actually, I did. We brought Jeff home from the hospital and I said to Jay, "I want to do this again!" Two years later Julia was born.) Many people find joy in selfless acts, but even Jesus needed rest and set boundaries. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH SETTING BOUNDARIES! Selfless acts do not mean giving up one's self. Jesus gave up his life, but never himself.
So, according to Julian, joy is love, joy is giving, and there it is again - gratitude.
I looked up "joy" on biblegateway.com. the word joy occurs 227 times in the Bible. As I scanned the verses, it looked like joy represents hope, as in when people rejoiced because they had a new king. Joy was lost when the people defied or displeased God. Joy was restored when people returned to God. There was also the joy of revelry, eating and drinking, etc - I am summarizing badly. But this verse seems to sum it up for me: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13, NIV).
Joy is not something that brings temporary happiness. Joy is something that is deep within us. We might not feel happy, blissful, ecstatic, cheerful, glad, or any of the things the advertisers tell us we should feel, but we can access it whenever we want to. Joy comes from gratitude, connection to other people, and love.
Joy is hope, as we hope in the Lord. Joy is peace - that passes all understanding. And it just occurred to me that the Advent wreath brings all of the messages of Advent together in a circle - if we have hope, we experience peace. Hope and peace bring joy. Joy is a gift from God because God loves us (the 4th candle, if you don't know this already, is Love). And love gives us hope - and the circle continues. In the center of the Advent wreath is the Christ candle. I don't believe that non-Christians are condemned - I believe that Jesus came that we all might have abundant life, and I believe that God is big enough to not care what name we call God, and that God is a masculine and feminine divine, and that there are so many different paths to get to God. But as a Christian, if I truly put Christ in the center of my life - of my Advent - then hope, peace, joy and love are mine for the asking. Even if I don't get diamonds or a new car for Christmas.
I pray that this Christmas and as we move into the new year you will dig deep within yourself to find the joy that is there. Find things for which you are grateful. Consider the needs of others, and give as you can. Love those you know and those you don't. Love yourself, for God loves you with a never-ending love. And just as the Advent wreath teaches us, put God at the center, whether you believe that Jesus is the son of God, or if you call God Allah, or the divine or you don't know what to call God or if God even exists - you are wholly and deeply loved. That is joy.
Butler Bass, Diana. Grateful: the Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks. HarperOne. 2019
Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translated by Elizabeth Spearing. London: Penguin Books. 1998.
The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy. New York: Avery. 2016.