I don’t think it’s accidental that we celebrate Advent and Jesus’ birth at this time of year. It’s a dark season. We’re quickly approaching Winter Solstice - the longest and darkest night of the year. I'm not sure we know exactly who decided we’d celebrate the coming of the Light of the World immediately following that day, but it’s exactly what we need at exactly the right time if you ask me. It’s when things are darkest that we appreciate light the most. If there’s no dark, we can’t tell it’s light, and without light, how do we know it’s dark? We need the contrast, we need the dualistic nature of these things to even know they exist.
We do not talk enough about the darkness and grief of Christmas. We want to focus on only the light and beauty and magic and pretty babies wrapped in clean cloths. We like the idea of a star shining directly over a stable where all of the farm animals lie down beatifically while just a few people come to look at the baby and its mother who is modestly draped in blue. Joseph stands benignly by while well-kempt shepherds kneel towards the manger filled with perfectly clean straw. The angel perches on top of the stable or sometimes close by, while Jesus lies perfectly silent. Everyone looks holy and peaceful.
It’s just that that’s not what the story talks about.
The story tells about the life of an oppressed people forced to leave their homes and travel hundreds of miles to register for the census by an occupying government. It’s a story of a young, unmarried, pregnant teenager who was forced to have her baby far from home and her family. I’m going to guess her birth plan did not include this particular setting nor those particular attendants. If you’ve never experienced labor and delivery, let me assure you, you don’t want to be doing it in who-knows-what kind of outbuilding in the middle of a bunch of farm animals.
While we are highly individualistic Americans, there are few places in this world where women do not labor and birth their babies in the presence of other women. If you’re a young teenager who was barely of age to be married, you’re gonna want your mama or your aunties or your friends. As recorded, Mary had only Joseph, who had no experience with childbirth, or anything else regarding relationships and sex, for all we know.
The baby cried. There was blood and fluid and an umbilical cord and afterbirth. There was dirt and manure, pain and sorrow. All of that, plus within the first years of Jesus’ birth, there was a threat to his life, and his parents were forced to become refugees to protect him.
I know we have no historical record of what Mary expected or felt during this specific time, but you cannot convince me that this is what she had in mind. That when she thought about getting married, having her first baby, making her home as an adult, that this is what she dreamed. No one wants to be forced from their family and their home. No one wants to birth their first born to live in constant fear of death. While we’re at it, I guarantee not one of us wants our first born to get to his early thirties only to executed by the state. It’s kind of a dark story when you think about it, and one that is grievously familiar in our world, this week especially.
This story and this season is one of joy and grief. They aren’t opposites as we’d like to dichotomize them into being. They’re travel buddies, as it were. One of my favorite quotes in literature is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series where Sam asks Gandalf, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” There’s poetic beauty to those words of hope, but we humans know the truth of it: here on this mortal earth, everything sad does not come untrue. Sometimes sad things stay sad. Sometimes bad things happen, and they don’t get better.
So then, what are we to do? Live in darkness and despair? Take that winter solstice and make it every day of the rest of our lives? Be overcome with grief for the remainder of our days?
I would argue this is when the practice of joy is most important. It doesn’t come easy. We have to do it over and over again to get any good at it, but eventually it does come more naturally. We do get better at practicing joy the longer we try.
I would also hypothesize that we are perhaps taught to practice joy in the wrong ways. I think the messages we most often receive are mostly found in clichés presented without nuance: Look for the silver lining. There’s no rainbow without the rain. God works all things together for good. This is a blessing in disguise. Rejoice always. Joy comes in the morning.
There’s truth in every cliché, and more than a few of those are based in Scriptural promises, true. I will not spend this time mocking something that helps another person cope. But if you’re like me, and those phrases make you irritated more often than they encourage, I’d like to suggest another way to practice joy.
It doesn’t look like black and white opposites.
It doesn’t require sad or happy.
It doesn’t ask for joy or grief.
It is both/and.
It looks like joy found in the everyday, in the ordinary, in the smallest of smalls, even when the extraordinary is happening around you.
Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, calls this ‘counting gifts’. When you count the ways you see God, the ways you find light, the ways you practice joy. We count and count, and it doesn’t make the sad come untrue. It just gives us joy in the middle of it. I think that’s what the Biblical author Paul means when he says “rejoice always”. We do not have to rejoice in bad things. We are to rejoice in what’s good. Pure. Truth. Light. We just do it in the middle of the evil and dark and sadness.
Christmas is a season of trauma triggers and rough family situations for our family.
I see God in my Christmas tree lights.
Yes, that sounds silly. My old-fashioned opaque C9 white lights do NOT make the trauma go away. I can’t explain it. I’m still sad about our family situations. It will never not be true that Christmas brings up hard things for us. Yet those lights bring me legitimate joy.
This week, I had a terrible confrontation with one of my kids. It was ugly, embarrassing for both of us, and bad enough that I had to rely on people outside our family to help us through it.
I found light later that night when I watched Ted Lasso with my husband. (Side note: Ted Lasso is a pandemic savior.)
It didn’t erase the confrontation or the fallout from it. We’re still working through that even today. But Ted Lasso brought me moments of true joy.
My three youngest kids are separated from their first parents. It is awful. It will never not be true. It will never be ok. It is horrific and traumatic, and both they and I often wonder how to believe in a God that allows this kind of tragedy.
I found joy this week in a late afternoon walk in the woods with friends.
It’s not even related. It’s just how I practice joy in the middle of a life where the bad things will always be bad, and the sad things will always be sad. I can still find authentic joy.
My list this week could go on and on:
Cilantro hemp pesto
A cousin who can name a feeling I wasn’t even aware I was having until she said it. Via text, no less.
Ice cream for a sick uncle
A favorite author’s newest novel
Advent Carolndar instagram account
Rescued and reclaimed (or stolen? Finders keepers) deer blinds
A dog reality show
I know some of it sounds trivial.
Some of it might sound trite.
Some of it is profound.
All of it is joy.
Sad things stay sad.
Bad things are still bad.
Joy is still here.
Practice joy with me this week?
Along the banks of Babylon’s rivers
we sat as exiles, mourning our captivity,
and wept with great love for Zion.
Our music and mirth were no longer heard, only sadness.
We hung up our harps on the willow trees.
Our captors tormented us, saying, “Make music for us and
sing one of your happy Zion-songs!”
But how could we sing the song of the Lord
in this foreign wilderness?
You will indeed go out with joy
and be peacefully guided;
the mountains and the hills will break into singing before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush, a cypress will come up,
and instead of the brier, a myrtle will come up;
this will stand as a monument for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that will not be destroyed.
Take the time to write down 3 small joys today.
Can't think of 3? Just write down one. And then do again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.
I'm serious about these invitations, friends, in that I do not want them to be more than we can handle. This is a welcome to do just one step with me. No pressure. No real "challenges". I've looked for the easiest of ways to enter into this season. All that's required is yourself. We change our world when we change our lives when we change our thoughts. Start small. We can do it together.
God of Joy,
We are grieving and angry and broken over the state of our own lives and the state of the world. Teach us how to move forward when all seems lost. Teach us what it means to live in light when the darkness is always with us. Teach us how to count your gifts to us even when the circumstances around us do not change. Teach us to practice joy, and then help us spread that joy to those around us. For the sake of Your glory and for the sake of the world, we pray. Amen.
*I’ll be showing up here on the next few Sundays before Christmas talking about what we can do and how we can show up in the middle of a pandemic to prepare for a God who showed up for us in the flesh, here, in a broken world. Don’t want to miss a post? Sign up at the link below to get it straight into your inbox. You’re not into it? Just skip the Sunday posts. Or maybe? Read it? Consider that it’s all a little easier and more grace-full than what you think.