The Gospel — good news — of God comes to us, as it did two thousand years ago, not on a bright, sunny day. Not as the sun’s rays stream down from a cloudless sky. The word, both spoken and the Word made flesh, came into the world at night. God’s love became incarnate right in the darkest of times. This message was conveyed by a heavenly host in the dark: “Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”
Today, in the season of Advent at literally the darkest time of year, we observe the Sunday of Joy: Gaudete Sunday, traditionally called. With the shepherds who keep watch at night, on this long, dark journey of waiting, and preparing and watching—the message of joy pierces our longing, our yearning and even our despair.
Joy is a consistent theme among new Testament characters:
“Rejoice!” is the angel’s greeting to Mary.In her song of praise, Mary proclaims: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.When Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptist cries out: “For this reason, my joy has been fulfilled.”To his disciples Jesus’ message brings joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”And, Jesus promises: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”Even amid persecution his disciples continued to be “filled with joy.”
The New Testament abounds with the language of joy.
Shortly after his election, Pope Francis challenged the church, “Why should wenot also enter into this great stream of joy?”
How do you respond to such an invitation for your life to reflect this joy?
You may react as do I. On the surface, such a juxtaposition seems unnatural, even offensive. For, how can we feel joy in the midst of sadness? How can we feel joy when we have such a long way to go, still? How can we “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!”when confronting the darkest night of our soul—where we are most vulnerable and where it hurts the most? We may object to the phony feel of this call to be joyful, dismissing it as a fake and artificial expression that denies the hard realities of life.
We are not alone on this journey. We join the followers of Christ from the beginning who in their own ways traversed this uncertain territory that somehow brought them from suffering to a place of true joy. What did they do? How did they do it?
An early Christian theologian, Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, explained Christian faith and believers in this way; listen to his words:
“We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies …”
What accounted for this radical change in the life of first centuries Christians? Even Emperor Julian—who was the last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and against Christianity—wrote:
“Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the godless Galileans (Christians) care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”
Clearly, the early Christians were known as people who cared for the stranger in need. And not at a time when Christianity was privileged in society. Not at a bright, glorious time in Christian history when Christianity was growing around the globe in leaps and bounds. Not when Christianity occupied throne-rooms and halls of power in governments. Not in the world’s measures of success.
Rather, this care for the other was given when Christians were persecuted and driven underground. Their greatest witness to the living Lord came at the darkest time for Christians.
Maybe those early Christians understood a truth about the Christian path: That our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.When we cry out simply, yet from the heart: “Help!”; when our tears soak the pillow and we can’t see a way through but know that somehow God is somewhere in this; when poverty, violence and death continue to populate the media and the world around us, we lament and shake our fist in anger towards the heavens. Why, God?
Pay attention in this darkness. Keep watch. For, our most vulnerable prayer is the path to our deepest relationship with God.
“Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …”
For a week in April 2015 Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited the Dalai Lama in India. Their dialogue and interactions became “The Book of Joy”. In it, they write: “Suffering is inevitable. But how we respond to that suffering is our choice. Not even oppression or occupation can take away this freedom to choose our response.”
In “The Book of Joy” they outline the four qualities of the heart that lead to joy: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. At the end of the book, they offer this blessing:
“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish. God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring, the sharing.
“And God says, Please, my child, help me. Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion. And you know what, my child? As you do this—hey, presto—you discover joy. Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”
Perhaps, then, there is a way in and through the darkness.
Cited by the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki inThe Eastern Synod Lutheran (Kitchener: Eastern Synod ELCIC, Volume 44, September 25, 2015), p.1
@lutherans.connect, “Faith in the Night”, DAY 1, Advent 2018
Cited in Richard Rohr, ibid., 29 November 2018