Where Will You Find Joy?
The Christmas tree business is booming! It’s evidently one way people are finding joy in this strange, COVID-infected season. The New York Times reported:
This year, with parties and vacations largely cancelled, one source of holiday cheer remains in tact: Christmas trees. Americans are buying the trees in droves and the farms that produce them are struggling to keep up.
So, what’s your “source of holiday cheer”?
Last Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, is traditionally called Gaudate, Latin for joy. In the Old Testament reading for the day, Isaiah promises the One who will come:
to comfort all who mourn,
to give them a crown in place of ashes,
oil of joy in place of mourning,
a mantle of praise in place of discouragement…
…everlasting joy will be theirs…
I surely rejoice in the Lord;
my heart is joyful because of my God. (Isaiah 61:1-10)
So, here’s the question — and it’s a big one! — where do we find joy when so many of the Christmas practices and traditions in which we’ve found joy in the past have been taken from us? You can make your own list of the joy-bringers that COVID-19 has stolen from you this season. With all we’ve lost, where will joy be found?
Here’s my prescription:
- Turn off the 24-hour cable news networks for awhile.
- Turn on the Christmas carols. (Christmas at Downton Abby is not a bad place to start!)
- Celebrate simple things by sharing joyful memories.
- Spend time with the Christmas gospels. (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2)
- Since you aren’t going anywhere anyway, sit down and read a book that is really worth reading.
The Great Joy
December 10 was the 52nd anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton. It took me back to his classic autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Rereading it has been — with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore — like the way ” the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow/ Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.”
Merton tells the story of the circuitous journey that led him to the Abby of Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he became one of the most influential writers on Christian spirituality in the 20th Century and a powerful witness for civil rights and nonviolence. Merton’s books never cease to surprise, challenge and uplift me.
I first visited Gethsemani as a seminary student 50 years ago, followed by other visits when I was in Kentucky. Though I haven’t been back physically for two decades, I often return in my imagination to that place of powerful peace and Spirit-filled silence.
Looking back on his first Christmas in the monastery, Merton names things he had lost along with what he had found.
In all the other Christmases of my life, I had got a lot of presents and a big dinner. This Christmas I was to get no presents, and not much of a dinner: but I would have instead, Christ Himself, the Savior of the world.
He describes what he experienced during the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
The emptiness that had opened out within me, that had been prepared during Advent and laid open by my own silence and darkness now became full. And suddenly I was in a new world.
There was a far greater reality in all this, the sense of the presence of a Person; not exteriorized in space, not standing opposite one … but living in the midst … You know that Christ is born within you, infinite liberty: that you are free! … That you can love! That you are standing on the threshold of infinite possibilities!
All of which leads to a passage I read almost every Christmas.
When the joy which is The Great Joy, explodes silently upon the world, there is no longer any room for sadness … In the special and heavenly light which shines around the coming of the Word into the world, all ordinary things are transfigured.
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited … It is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation. It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities, but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.
But can we believe it?
You don’t need to be a monk or go into a monastery to feel the emptiness of what we’ve lost this Christmas. But when everything else is taken away, one thing remains: the joy which is The Great Joy will still “explode silently” in the hearts and lives of ordinary folks like every one of us … if we can believe it.
How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.
May The Great Joy explode silently in your life this Christmas!
Grace and peace,