I associate the holiday season with a persistent state of joy – not in the sense that I am joyful, but more that I should be joyful. Everything is sparkly and decorated and beautiful, which gives me the impression that I should feel sparkly on the inside too. Even our oft-quoted scripture this time of year suggests that joy is an appropriate response to the season.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:” (Luke 2:8-10, NRSV)
But there are days, especially during the holiday season, that I don’t feel very joyful. I am currently praying with friends facing serious medical situations. I grieve the loss of those who are no longer a bodily presence for our holiday traditions. And I consistently wrestle with how the trappings of Christmas sometimes seem to obscure the meaning of Christmas.
So maybe I’m not paying close enough attention. In the above quoted text, the proclamation of joy was made to shepherds who were terrified. A quick scan of other texts that include the word translated as “joy” also seem to have a broader context that includes pain, suffering, and fear. Even the carols that we sing this time of year allude to a context that includes a broader emotional palette than just sparkly and happy.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thy justice here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, United Methodist Hymnal #211 verses 1, 6)
Considering a broader context for the joy of Christmas caused me to remember a conversation I had with my then 4-year old daughter just before Easter. “Mom,” I heard from the backset of the minivan. “I like Christmas because I like the baby Jesus, but I don’t like Easter so much. Why did Jesus have to die?” That question actually started the journey that led me to ordained ministry – but that’s a conversation for another day. The truth was, and still is, that I wrestle with understanding that the experience of deep, abiding joy can, and frequently does, emerge from a context that includes pain, suffering, and fear.
The overwhelming joy I felt when I held my children for the first time emerged after a time of pain and struggle. The joy and comfort I now feel when I remember my father emerged slowly out of the sadness I felt and the tears I cried after his death.
What about you? Have you experienced joy that emerged after a season of pain and suffering?
Maybe at Christmas joy is my appropriate response, but not in response to the shiny and sparkly trappings of Christmas. Rather joy can be what happens when I choose to remain present and attentive to the complex feelings and memories that come flooding back this time of year. As Khalil Gibran shares in the following poem, “On Joy and Sorrow” from The Prophet maybe my joy is my sorrow unmasked – and instead of trying to fight against my feelings of sadness, I could sit with them for a while and possibly catch a glimpse of the delight that dances ever so delicately with sorrow.
How about you? If you find yourself feeling a little melancholy during “the most wonderful time of the year,” try greeting the feeling as you would an old friend, listen to what it has to tell you, and be present to the dance of joy and sorrow. Pay attention to who you meet and what you do on your journey. Let us know how it goes.
“On Joy and Sorrow” from The Prophet
By Khalil Gibran
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the reassure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.