Rejoice Always

Advent III, December 14, 2014

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Today is Advent 3, the Sunday of joy. Today we lit the pink candle on the Advent wreath, pink in contrast to the penitential purple of the other candles, as we sing “light one candle of joy”.  This is the Sunday where we celebrate and pray for the gift of joy

After all, that is what the Christmas season is all about, isn’t it? “Glad tidings of great joy, which will be to all people”.  We will sing “Joy ot the World”. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, a time when everyone will be experiencing Christmas cheer, the warmth of love shared as a family, all the good mood and happy feelings that come at this time of year.

Except of course that it is not always like that.  For many people, Christmas can be a particularly difficult time of the year.  For some people, grieving the loss of a loved one, it can be a painful time, when so many precious memories make the loss to be felt more keenly.  For others, it is a time when conflicts and divisions in the family are most painfully obvious.  It is a time when depression can be a particularly challenging, when the long nights and incessant hype about Christmas cheer can be unbearable.  For some Christmas can feel more stressful than anything else, when it just feels like more demands placed on our already overburdened lives to make things perfect for the kids.  If money is tight, the expectations of Christmas can stretch a budget to the breaking point.  It can be a time when children have poverty rubbed in their faces, and who can bear that?

And then there are the bigger, societal problems, like that row of stones stretching across our altar.  Are they starting to feel oppressive?  Today we remember the despair of many first nations youth, the unbearably high suicide rates, the pain of families and communities torn by that unthinkable tragedy.  How do we talk of joy almost in the same breath?

For many people, this is a difficult time of year, and all the talk and expectations and hype around Christmas cheer and warm feelings and happiness just make it all the more difficult.  “Great, as though it weren’t hard enough feeling burdened, now we have to feel guilty about not being happy.”

It’s no wonder many churches are offering Blue Christmas or Longest Night services, services that make room for our pain and loss and loneliness, even as we gather to hear the glad tidings of great joy.  They are attempts to answer the question we face this morning: how do we talk about joy in a way that is not just more of the hype, more of the pressure, more of the pull-yourself-together-and-be-happy-already guilt that already surrounds us at this time of the year.

It is important to remember that joy, that gift we celebrate today, is not the same as Christmas cheer, that incessant, insistent demand from marketers and party-planners to have a “Merry Christmas”. Advent joy is not about parties and presents and twinkling lights. It’s not even about gathered friends and family or beautiful church services. Advent joy outlasts the holiday season and is present even in places where none of the holiday trimmings can be found.

Christian joy is not the same as happiness, either, that goal that our society seems to hold up as the highest goal of human life: the pursuit of happiness.  Now happiness is a good thing, no doubt, something we all wish to experience as much as possible.  But there is the hitch: it is one experience, one feeling among others that make up the full palette of what it means to live our lives.  Sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are content, sometimes we are euphoric; but sometimes we are sad, because there are things we should be sad about; sometimes we are angry, because there are things we should be angry about; sometimes we are bored, sometimes impatient, sometimes we are blue. It is what makes us human. “They lived happily ever after” is really no life, when you think about it: it is a recipe for unmitigated boredom.

Happiness, and Christmas cheer, are emotions. They are something we feel, or we don’t feel.  When they are there, great, they are there; and when they’re not, well, they’re not really anywhere.  Joy, on the other hand, is more than just something we feel or we don’t feel.  It is something outside of ourselves, it is an attribute of the world, as it is, and, more fully, as it will be. When God became flesh, joy entered the world. “I bring you tidings of great joy”, declared the angel to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. “for unto you a Saviour is born!” What greater joy could there be than the presence of God-with-us, born a child to participate in the mess and the beauty and the suffering and the happiness of creation right along with us?

He is our joy, that child whose birth we await.  That means that joy is something outside of ourselves, something bigger than you and me.  When we experience this joy, when we kneel down before this child, he can fill our soul with love and warmth and joy –  we have all experienced this.  But when we don’t experience it, when life has put other feelings into our hearts, grief or blackness or restless discontent; well, joy doesn’t disappear.  Our joy is still there, lying on his bed of straw in the manger, waiting to touch our lives again

Joy is more than an emotion.  Our emotions, what we feel and experience inside, is like the soundtrack of our lives, the music that is always playing in our souls: always varied, always there.  Sometimes light and happy, sometimes mellow and laid-back, sometimes hectic, sometimes dark and sombre, sometimes dead and empty.  If our emotional life is the surface melody, the joy of Christ is the deep, deep harmony of our souls.  Sometimes we are aware of it, sometimes not – but the deep chords of the love of God undergird and bear up all the other music that is going on.

This joy does not deny the reality of grief and suffering. It does not demand phony smiles and false assurances that everything is just fine. Instead, it offers a sure promise that God knows, that God cares, that God is with us.

“Rejoice always” says St. Paul in today’s second reading; or in another place, “Rejoice in the Lord at all times”. That is not the same as pretending to be happy all the time.  It is not a forced cheerfulness we put on to mask our pain. Rejoice in the Lord means we turn our attention to Jesus. We look to child in the manger, or the man teaching and healing by the lake, or the man on the cross, or the host who invites us here to his table. And as we look to him, we allow him to call forth those deep chords within us, chords of love, and devotion, and joy.

We rejoice in the Lord not only when we are happy. We will also be scared or sad or angry or anxious sometimes. Rejoice in the Lord.  When we are happy or secure or hopeful or exuberantly silly, rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord at all times. Whatever we may be feeling, we try to orient ourselves to that child in the manger, and to the deep chords he calls forth within us. And those chords will not so much drown out whatever we are feeling; rather, they will bear it up, and heal it, and make it part of a whole, as a harmony does not overwhelm a tune, but transforms it and makes it whole.

As long as we are in this life, we will continue to experience our ups and downs, happiness and sorrow and all the various shades in between. But we do so borne up by the deep joy of Christ’s love, which is there for us, whether we experience it at the moment or not, carrying our lives along till that redeemed life where that joy will be our all in all.

In the meantime,

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. Amen.