Advent is swiftly approaching, the time of anticipation when we Christians prepare our souls and lives for the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, each week is associated with a different word: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Of the three, Joy is the hardest to parse out because our culture doesn’t seem to know how to explain it apart from happiness. English is a fine language; it is elastic, evolving and eccentric. But very often, it fails us in the sense that it tries to pack too much meaning into one word; or it makes synonyms of words that demand more differentiation. As best as I can figure, we English speakers lazily explain that “Joy” is happiness on a deeper level and quickly change the subject when pushed. I have struggled in many a children sermon on the 3rd Sunday of Advent when I needed to explain what joy was, but not because I did not know the difference between joy and happiness. I knew it, but to define it was to reveal too much of myself.
I remember when my son’s head crowned the day he was born, the shocking feeling of his sudden existence apart from my own. I remember when my husband told me he loved me for the first time, the overwhelming relief of emotion separate from my years of pain. I remember when my family, friends and colleagues laid their hands upon me at my ordination, the hope of long years birthed under their fingertips. Those moments were not happy moments, in the sense that happiness is the emotional equivalent of a burst of color and light and trumpeting sound. They were moments where fear, anticipation, delight, wonder and grace swirled together in a hue of color rarely seen. These flashes of life (a child born, words whispered, hands resting upon each other), they are my best definition of joy.
Joy is not a feeling in as much as it is a belief in goodness beyond suffering. Joy is the laughter of memories shared at a funeral, joy is the hope waiting at the opening of a tomb, joy is waking in a hospital room to see your friend sleeping in a chair next to you. For Christians, joy is trusting that God can mold and shape the clay of this oft wretched world into something beautiful. Perhaps joy is like happiness, in the same way that the sun is a light. But who amongst us would truly draw comparison between the churning depths of fire and heat and power that make up our sun to the flickering bulbs that inhabit our ceilings?
I presided over the funeral of a good man last Friday, and I encouraged the assembly to remember that our grief had to be mingled with the joy we shared in his resurrection. Saturday, I will struggle to believe that as I stand to share my memories of my grandmother. I will not be happy; there is no happiness to be found in the loss of a woman such as her. But I will reach deep into the wellspring that God tends within my soul, I will reach deep and swim in the memories of her laughter and her hands and her breath and I believe I will find joy. Joy that I had the chance to be shaped by her love; Joy that my very life I owe to her own.
Victor Hugo said, “Joy's smile is much closer to tears than laughter.” What a gift.
Where is your joy, my friends?