Written by Patch Davies
Joy feels hard to find this year. All of the usual advent markers seem absent, or so heavily modified that they barely resemble what we’re used to. From carol services (or any service for that matter), Christingles, nativities, to the light switch-on in town and present-wrapping on the High Street. From the sacred to the secular (and the many activities that blur the two), tradition has been entirely disrupted this year, and with it, any sense of stability.
Families don’t know if they will be able to meet, or what the consequences will be if they do. Pastors risk assess, and risk assess, and risk assess, likely spending more time form filling than on the content of the services we are so desperate to share. Workplaces remain largely empty, and in the stresses of unmade Christmas plans and job losses and ‘how on earth are we going to afford presents this year?’ joy is all but absent.
I read sermon after sermon assuring me that joy should be the defining characteristic of all Christians at all times, and while well-intended they feel somewhat hollow this year. Rather than making things feel better, all they achieve is a compounded sense of failure that the ‘joy’ switch can’t be flipped back on again. So, where do we go from here?
Churches aren’t always very good at grief. After all, we have such good news to share, what could we possibly have to be unhappy about? But many of us are unhappy, or lost, and I hope this season you know that you have permission to feel those emotions or respond to your experiences without the accompanying guilt that difficult emotions somehow make you a ‘bad’ Christian, because they don’t.
When we allow ourselves to feel how we really feel we engage with the person of Jesus in a very different way. Gone is the inadequate caricature of a solely joyful saviour, instead we connect with the Jesus who was born in circumstances that, especially by our modern standards, were nothing short of terrifying. We connect with the person of Jesus who wept at the death of Lazarus, who was betrayed, who felt physical pain and who found his friends sleeping in the moments when he needed them the most. Since Jesus understands suffering more than anyone, I often question how he has been moulded into a friendly, harmless teacher who has little concern beyond organising the admissions process at the gates of the new earth. In John 11, when Jesus was confronted by a grieving Mary, he didn’t tell her she had nothing to be unhappy about, he didn’t try to assure her that somebody else always has it worse, he didn’t tell her that her pain was insignificant in comparison with the eternal glory that awaited her brother. When Mary cried to Jesus at the loss of her brother, Jesus was troubled, and then he wept.
We know that Lazarus was later raised from the dead and the joy that accompanied this miracle must have been unimaginable, but the pain Mary and others experienced prior to that moment was searing, and Jesus acknowledged it. We know that things will change, and while we don’t know exactly when that might happen, we hope for the day we can be safely reunited with each other. Until that time comes, know that God acknowledges your loss, is moved by your pain, and weeps alongside you. You have nothing to be ashamed of this year if the ‘Christmas spirit’ feels just out of reach. Joy is coming, and until then, we wait.
This post is part of an advent series. Twenty-Four diverse voices have been invited to share some thoughts on one of four themes (Hope, Peace, Joy and Love) each day during the season of Advent. Each contributor has been given just one theme and no further parameters – they may write as much or as little in the style of their own choosing.
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