December 17 - Advent 3
This is the week of Advent dedicated to joy. Joy is when our very innermost selves reverberate with God’s touch. Last week we said “peace” means wholeness and fullness – life as God intends it to be. Joy is when that wholeness, that absolute connection to God and each other, is felt with a jolt. It’s a momentary taste of life as it was meant to be. Anne Lamott says, “Peace is joy at rest. Joy is peace on its feet.” In the past we’ve called Joy “pre-membering” God’s future breaking in now, momentarily tasting what Hope, our theme the first week of Advent, articulates.
But letting down your guard to be open to joy is extremely vulnerable. To take deep pleasure in a moment of true connection touches us in our very core. It can be scary to be this real, this alive. We’re exposed as simply human, when so often we protect ourselves from this reality.
Not to mention that these days, joyfulness might seem naive or out of touch. With so much suffering and violence in the world, perhaps we think that if we’re seeking joy, we must not be paying attention. But scripture suggests it’s actually the other way around: When we are really paying attention, joy finds us.
“Rejoice always,” Paul says, but we tend to separate that from the next instruction, to “pray without ceasing.” This has been interpreted and attempted countless of ways over time. From the extreme, like the group that demands people turn away from an ordinary life to keep a 24-hour prayer and worship service going for decades, to the ancient practice of personal breath prayers, trying to match your breathing to scripture of repentance to God, so that it eventually constant prayer becomes an unthought practice, Christians have been trying to understand and practice this praying without ceasing business for millennia.
We most often think of prayer as stepping out of the world momentarily to turn toward God, but Bonhoeffer says prayer is inextricable from our life in the world, merged with our concrete activity and relationships with others. Christ comes into this world to share life with us, so we meet Christ as we share life with each other. Prayer – or listening to God, attentiveness, availability - happens in our concrete life, our daily work and activities. When Paul admonishes us to pray without ceasing is, Bonhoeffer describes this as “finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work.”
Our prayer reaches beyond the deliberate times of pausing and addressing God, into all parts of every day, infusing meaning, into ordinary life, opening us to joy. So, to pray without ceasing actually means tuning into our belonging to both God and our neighbors, practicing awareness of our connection both to the One from whom our life comes and to those to whom our life flows. When everything we do becomes a prayer in this way, Bonhoeffer describes it as, “a breaking through from the hard It to the gracious You.”
The “hard It” of the day can be horrifying. Right now, we dare not turn our gaze away from Gaza and the terror unfolding minute by minute there. But that’s today’s hard It. Yesterday we were looking at Ukraine – which is still a living nightmare, but our limited attention spans can’t hold everything at once, so we pick and choose which It disasters and crises to highlight. Mass shootings are stacking up multiple per day, people seeking a safe place to live are dying on the seas, and the week before Christmas we keep toying with 50 degrees above zero—our planet is in crisis.
That’s to say nothing of the more personal realities we carry with us like a heavy cloak around our shoulders – the heartbreaking struggle of someone we love, our own private rage or sorrow, the burdens of addiction or separation – it’s all the It – the ground on which our lives unfold, the stuff of working and relating we do every day as human beings.
Mix all that intense stuff up with the mundane list-making, germ-fighting, money-counting, deadline-meeting, chore-completing, gift-buying, worry-piling, traffic-fighting pressures of modern day-to-day life in a noisy and busy holiday season, and joy can feel remote and inaccessible, if not superfluous or shallow, pumped through tinny speakers in big box stores, or flashed before our eyes in sappy advertisements interrupting our binge-watching, and gradually the yous around us blend into the hard It that serves as the backdrop of our joyless lives.
But this is to mistake mindless cheer or self-satisfying distraction for joy, keeping us focused fully on the It, as though It is all there is. Joy, as the prophets foretell, joy that Advent invites us to hush still and listen for, is a deep, timeless, nevertheless reality that breaks into time. The You who is underneath and behind the It - all the its that have ever been, as dark as they have ever been - the You who sang the world into being, is here now, is coming, is never absent the darkness, but bringing, always, light, in fact, IS the light the darkness cannot put out. Joy tunes us into the powerful song underneath.
Mike Woods, who preached here the first Sunday in Advent, reminded me of a scene near the end of Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, when Charles Wallace and the unicorn, Gaudior (which is Latin for joy), are on a difficult mission. As they gallop through a starry galaxy, Charles Wallace struggles to stay awake and Gaudior cautions him, “Do not go to sleep.” An exhausted Charles Wallace replies, “I’m not sure if I can help it.”
“‘Sing, then,’ Gaudior commanded. ‘Sing to keep yourself awake.’” And with that, “the unicorn opened his powerful jaws and began to sing WITH the stars.” (and heaven and nature sing…)
Singing in harmony, the boy and the unicorn “moved through the time-spinning reaches of a far galaxy, and he realized that the galaxy itself was part of a mighty orchestra, and each star and planet within the galaxy added its own instrument to the music of the spheres. As long as the ancient harmonies were sung, the universe would not entirely lose its joy.”
There is the terrible and understandable temptation to ignore the deeper song, forget the bigger picture, overlook the longer story. To let the hard It of the moment fill our whole horizon, blocking us from the You of God, the yous of each other, drowning out the song of the stars and the universe. We forego joy for foreboding, trade trust for fear, let ourselves be overwhelmed by the darkness, and cease praying instead of praying without ceasing.
But every day, the God who breaks in, is breaking in. Jesus came that we might have his joy, joy complete, anyway joy, the gift of awareness of our aliveness, moments of awakened resonance between the ourselves and all else.
When the podcast in your headphones makes you stop and double over on the sidewalk gasping in laughter, and when your child steps out of the airport’s sliding doors and makes his way to you. When you ask, and ask and ask, What would make my heart sing? And seek to live that. When, in the midst of your dad’s funeral, the congregation sings the line, “though Satan should buffet” and your teary sister beside you bursts into loud giggles and drags you down with her, and when the spectacular pinks and oranges of the early morning sun stops you still at your window, you’re hearing the eternal song of joy breaking into time.
You’re sensing the God whose love is our origin and destination, puncturing the hard It to reach our soft and tender yous, that raw and vulnerable place inside, all wrinkled and unshaven and without make-up, where our childlike wonder still nests.
We join that song when we listen to another person, unhurried and available. We are praying without ceasing when we make eye contact, human to human with a stranger, or hold onto the humanity of those we oppose, keeping them a you instead of making them It. Receiving the moments of transformative laughter and quiet awe, is praying without ceasing. And in all of these ways we make ourselves available to joy, which the universe has not yet lost.
Paul is saying that the will of God in Jesus Christ is for us to live tapped into the deeper aliveness with which the whole universe reverberates. To rejoice always, to live in joy. And to seek out this reality by praying continually, by embracing and not resisting the Holy Spirit nudging us toward others, toward hope, toward healing, toward wholeness. To not resist being corrected and harmonized again with our true identity as beloved, and our true purpose of calling the world back to its belovedness. To recognize evil and oppose it, to seek out good and grasp onto it. And through it all, to trust that the One who is faithful will keep being so.
God’s future that is even now breaking in. Beloved, tune into the mighty orchestra, in which each life is an instrument. Stay unarmed and open to being seized by defiant, nevertheless joy. Practice trusting in our belonging to the You who holds us all and all the yous that pass before us each day. And on behalf of a broken and weary world—a beautiful and beloved world—let down your guard and join in the song: rejoice.