The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Those who observe the flow of the church year are a week into the season of Advent, but in the broader society, we're deep into Christmas.
As our communities ramp up for Yuletide celebrations, the common wisdom places people along a spectrum of emotional reactions. At each end, there are those who have hard-core commitments to a way of observing the season. At one extreme, there are those deliriously happy folk who love every part of the holiday -- gifts and parties and cards and songs and the baby Jesus and the greenery. At the other extreme, there are the bah-humbug grumps who never crack a smile, and who always complain about the commercialization of the holiday, the excesses of over-lit homes, and the secularization of a spiritual observance.
In between those polar opposites, most of us feel some resonance with each side, and we shift back and forth along the spectrum depending on who we're talking to, how well we slept last night, and the quality of the food being served at tonight's party.
And yes, 'tis true, my personal leanings often place me closer to Scrooge than to Tiny Tim.
As is so often the case, though, dividing our experiences into the duality of two opposing camps doesn't serve us very well. In this case, defining the available options as "happy" and "grumpy" leads us into the trap of viewing the season exclusively in terms of personal feelings. That simplistic spectrum leaves out the most important and meaningful approach to the season, and to our entire lives.
This Advent-Christmas period is a great time to reclaim the profound experience of joy.
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Joy is, of course, A Big Word in churches as we head into Christmas.
The ritual of advent candles guides us through steps of hope, peace, joy and love. It just wouldn't have the same depth if the sequence of the first three weeks was hope, peace and happiness, would it?
When we gather on Christmas Eve, many churches sing Joy to the World! as the great proclamation which culminates the service. It is joy, in a collective, even cosmic sense which expresses our appropriate response to the incarnation.
There's nothing wrong with happiness, and our troubled world could stand more of it, spread far more broadly. Happiness, though, is not the same as joy. Joy is more reflective, more profound, more deep-seated, and more persistent than the fleeting experience of happiness. Joy is a response to good news which recognizes our life in community, and which celebrates the promise which is extended to others, even to all of creation.
Joy is not another point on the line from grumpy to happy, a "really, really happy" option on the same scale. Joy is a different sort of experience. It is not strictly personal, but grounds us in community, and in a moral universe.
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In the language section of standardized tests like the SAT, there is always a section with questions like, "hammer is to nail as wrench is to (a) screwdriver, (b) faucet, (c) bolt, (d) toolbox." The relationship between the meanings of one word pair provides a way of testing whether the student understands the meaning of other words. It is an interesting way to test vocabulary within a multiple-choice format.
I'd suggest that "joy is to happiness as abundant is to affluent." Joy has a moral quality which grounds us a way of being.
Abundant life (which is what our faith promises us) is a life full of purpose and meaning, rich in relationships, and with sufficient material stuff to provide for our needs. An affluent life has lots of the stuff, but may be utterly lacking in the meaning and relationships which make life worthwhile. Abundant life is filled with joy. An affluent life may deliver moments of happiness without ever comprehending joy.
Abundance and joy connect us with a deep sense of how things should be, and an awareness that we are participating in what is, ultimately, good and right. Our joy calls us to bring that right-ness ever more fully into the world. Joy wants to grow. Joy wants to transform what is not right, and it has the deep roots to flourish in the face of real problems. Joy does not evaporate in the face of poverty, suffering, exploitation and destruction. Rather it gives us the grounding and strength to address those wrongs.
Happiness, of course, is all too likely to evaporate when the less-than-pleasant parts of reality assert themselves. It is hard to feel good about one's own situation in the face of somebody else's misery. But joy isn't about "feeling good" -- it is more about being in the presence of good.
Then there's grumpiness. When disconnected from joy, it becomes all about "feeling bad" and rapidly deteriorates into the sort of anger and cynicism which have no hope and bring no healing. There's nothing worthwhile about that.
Joy is a very different quality from the emotions and feelings of either happiness or grumpiness.
In last week's Notes, I put forth an "advent challenge" -- to have churches lift up in a public way the brokenness of the world, and its need for healing. I've heard from a few of you about rich and faithful ways in which that is being done, and I hope to hear more of your stories.
If our sense of how to observe this season has to do with creating happiness, then my challenge will be next to impossible. If, however, our faith fills us with hope and grounds us in joy, then we can go through this holiday season with our eyes and our hearts wide open. If we believe the joyous good news of the incarnation, then we don't have to hide ourselves from human suffering and ecological pain.
When we know joy, profound joy, we will have a tantalizing taste of how the world is meant to be, and we will be compelled through prayer and action to embody God's reality. It is the joy of our faith, the confidence of God's intention for the word, which calls us into the work for eco-justice, for the well being of all humanity on a thriving Earth.
May this season of Advent and Christmas nourish our joy.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org