by Kathy Staudt, BFL Spiritual Director
One of my favorite prayers in the baptism service is the one we say over the newly baptized – and especially the last part of it:
Heavenly Father, we thank thee that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on these your servants the forgiveness of sin and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your HolySpirit. Give the an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.
“Joy” and “wonder” are words we do associate with the Advent-Christmas season, especially joy: We hear “tidings of comfort and joy” and sing“Joy to the World the Lord is come” – and there’s something about “joy” that is different from the other words we attach to the Christmas season: it’s not about being “Merry” or even “Happy”. Joy is something deeper, not dependent on what is happening around us but growing within us.
As I write this we are coming up on the third Sunday of Advent, also known as “Gaudete” Sunday — when in many of our churches we light the rose candle, and sometimes use rose-colored vestments , remember especially the joy associated with the Annunciation to Mary. “Gaudete” comes from an old Latin hymn that begins “Rejoice, Mary!” and so it is about the joy of Mary, and with her of all humanity, at receiving the gift of God becoming one of us inJesus. But also, more subtly, we are contemplating the mysterious, oddly heavy joy of Christ choosing to come among us. The lessons from Hebrew Scripture of the season capture this: one of those passages from the prophet Zephaniah celebrating the return of Israel from exile, but which we as Christians have come to read as also celebratingGod-with-us in Jesus: Pay attention to some of these words:
Sing aloud, o daughter Zion
And the reading from the New Testament for the day is from Paul in Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice”
Sometimes this season is NOT one of merriment or celebration, especially for people in grief. But joy is something else: Joy is that interior response, that reception of the gift of God who “rejoices over us” no matter what the external circumstances may be, and who reaches out and becomes one of us: Indeed in times of loss that mystery of theIncarnation looms larger, and all we can do, really, is receive it, in the quiet of our hearts, even in times of grieving. The words of Scripture and liturgy in this season can help with this.
As we turn the corner to third Sunday of Advent I am probably not alone in also being aware of a great deal of brokenness in my immediate and wider circle of friends and communities. News of serious illness in my near circle of friends, the death of a beloved companion, and for some of my friends the anniversary of hard losses, always magnified by the false heartiness that can come with theChristmas season. I think of the poet Wendell Berry, in his“manifesto” poem that celebrates a spirituality of resistance: He exhorts his readers “Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts” * This is not so easy – but it is an invitation of the season.
Thinking about “Gaudete” Sunday and that word “Joy” I am reminded of the words thatJesus speaks to his disciples in the farewell discourse in John’s gospel, as he is preparing, knowingly, to go to his death, completing the story whose beginning we are celebrating in this Advent season. Exhorting his friends to love one another, to stay connected to him in love, he says
“ I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
So this Advent season, and even as we move through Advent to Christmas andEpiphany, I invite you to reflect on the role of that word “Joy” in your life, perhaps spending time sitting with one of the passages I have quoted here. And in this holy season may you experience anew that “gift of joy and wonder” that is our baptismal heritage!
Note: Wendell Berry: “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’sLiberation Front,” – the same poem ends with an exhortation to “PracticeResurrection”. Found online at https://www.context.org/iclib/ic30/berry/