by Ken Sehested
It’s been a bit more than a week since the Christian community celebrated “Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday.” More properly, a Gaudete service should be observed every 22 December, the longest dark night of the year, Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere—six months later in the Southern). As a way of testifying to the conviction that what is promised is more than what is evident; more is at work than we can see.
Truth is, People of the Book share some values with our Pagan friends in their earth-based spirituality. Christians’ most distinctive conviction is that of the Incarnation, the materiality of the Creator in Creation’s flesh and blood.
§ § §
Alas, there is little evidence of rejoicing now. We live in the face of multiple pandemics: biological, economic, ecological, social. Not to mention a Stephen King-esque horror movie nearing its climax in our presidential parlor.
One day our great grandchildren will ask from us an account of how we let this happen. I will be happy enough to have disappeared from the scene so I don’t have to answer.
But for now, people of faith need to be able to say why we believe that more is, in fact, promised. To say why joy—despite the cruel and contemptible evidence to the contrary—is the appropriate posture, the proper line-of-sight, the most reliable horizon, for the living of these days.
Joy is more than laughter. It is more than a boisterous dinner party. I’m not talking Mardi Gras. (Though I love laughter, boisterous parties, and parades.)
Rather, joy is that deep dwelling “Desire of nations,” in the stanza of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” written by Henry Sloan Coffin. That desire, adjective for the Promised One, is the deepest current flowing in the river of all life. That desire, built into the DNA of Creation, for the restoration of right relations, for the Kingdom of God, for the Beloved Community, for the new heaven and the new earth—this is the stuff of the star dust from which we are made.
Joyfulness may be expressed in jolly moods. But joy is also the taproot of lament. If there were no joy, suffering would be reduced to silence. Wailing only occurs when there is some hope that it will be heard.
In our faith’s meta-story, the wailing of slaves is what triggered Heaven’s attention. This sequence has not changed.
§ § §
Joy is the persevering confidence—despite cruel and contemptible evidence—that God is not yet done with us. Joy, in the Hanukkah story recorded in the Talmud (Megillat Taanit, Kislev 7-8), is the Temple lamp whose one-day supply of oil lasts for eight. Joy is the radical reversal of political inevitably, as when the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17) went “outside of Israel,” to a starving widow in Zarephath, to receive the last of her provisions for his meal, and then discovering that the flour and cooking oil are not exhausted.
Joy is the prison singing of Paul and Silas (Acts 16). Joy is the apocalyptic vision of John the Revelator (5:5) where, without explanation or prologue, the Lion is transformed into the Lamb, who takes away the sins—the spirals of violence and contention and conceit—of the world, retribution displaced by mercy.
The soaring chorus of Händel’s Messiah foretells, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord. . . .” (citing Revelation 11:15)
In its most comprehensive sense, joy is resilience. Stamina. Staying power. Buoyance. Joy is the capacity to bloom even in the crevices of sheer rock, as some desert cacti accomplish. What enables this apparent miracle is the work of microscopic bacteria http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8209000/8209687.stm on a seed that eats away miniscule amounts of stone, releasing its minerals, which in turn feed the plant.
In other words, grit—in both its material and psychological meanings.
The Prophet Habakkuk provides the most fitting word of assurance in this season of despondence:
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet will I rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18)
And again I say, rejoice.
# # #