Joy to the World – Part 1

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  • **As we celebrate this Advent season, may we prepare Him room in our hearts and lives and experience great joy at His coming.

    Thanksgiving and Christmas (now called “Turkey Day” and “Sparkletime” by some, alas!) are holidays that are supposed to be happy. When there is no one to thank and the Christ of Christmas is unknown, there may be a measure of happiness—if the dinner is as delectable as hoped, and the relatives manage to treat each other fairly civilly. But how many stories we hear of bleak and miserable family get-togethers—”Never again!” 

    A holiday is a holy day, meant to be hallowed—meant also to hallow the rest of life. Alexander Schmemann says that to the man of the past, “a feast was not merely a ‘break’ in an otherwise meaningless and hard life of work, but a justification of that work, its fruit, its—so to speak—transformation into joy, and therefore into freedom. A feast was thus always deeply and organically related to time, to the natural cycles of times, to the whole framework of man’s life in the world. And, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not, Christianity accepted and made its own this fundamentally human phenomenon of feast, as it accepted and made its own the whole man and all his needs. But, as in everything else, Christians accepted the feast not only by giving it a new meaning, by transforming its ‘content,’ but by taking it, along with the whole of ‘natural’ man, through death and resurrection …. “

    Schmemann points out a strange paradox here: Christianity is, on one hand, the end of all natural joy, “because by revealing the perfect man it revealed the abyss of man’s alienation from God… Since the Gospel was preached in this world, all attempts to go back to a pure ‘pagan joy,’ all ‘renaissances,’ all ‘healthy optimisms’ were bound to fail. ‘There is but one sadness,’ said Leon Bloy, ‘that of not being a saint.’ And it is this sadness that permeates mysteriously the whole life of the world, its frantic and pathetic hunger and thirst for perfection, which kills all joy… Christianity was the revelation and the gift of joy, and thus, the gift of genuine feast” (For the Life of the World, pp. 54-55). 

    Have we Christians accepted the “whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture,” relegating joy to the category of “fun,” “relaxation,” or a time for “winding down”? Do we know much of true joy, or does the word frighten us? Do we look at it with suspicion in the world which Wordsworth said is “too much with us,” a world of “getting and spending,” where “we lay waste our powers”? Life is punctuated here and there with a little happiness. We give ourselves permission to have fun and then wonder if we had any. We try to relax and tomorrow’s business constricts our hearts. Gerard Manley Hopkins asks, “Why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered?” 

    Feast means joy. Joy is the keynote of the Christian life. It is not something that happens. It is a gift, given to us in the coming of Christ. A few humble shepherds, doing their routine sheep-watching duty in the fields near Bethlehem one night, were astounded when an angel appeared. There was no question about it—it was an angel all right, and the glory of the Lord encompassed them. They were terrified. But the angel brought good news of great joy, meant not only for them but for all people throughout the world. (Had you thought that Mary and Joseph did not hear the angels’ song? DeSales suggests that they only heard the child weep, “and saw, by the little light borrowed from some wretched lamp, the eyes of this divine child all filled with tears, and faint under the rigor of the cold.”)   Continued next week . . .

    **Excerpt originally published in the Nov/Dec 1996 Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter.