Monday, December 12, 2011

A Quiet Joy

Of all the themes of this series on "A Quiet Advent," the one that would seem the loudest is joy. It is not hard to capture peace, hope, and love in quiet terms and images, but joy feels like an explosive quality, one that would cause you to throw your arms in the air and shout, laugh out loud, jump in the air. There is something about joy that wants to move outward.

I wonder, though, if the proper understanding of joy in the Christian life, is less like the explosion of a volcano and more like the steady heat of lava flowing underground, invisible yet unstoppable. Yes, there are the mountaintop moments, but most of our rejoicing is a steady, bubbling, subterranean reality.

The reason I am a day late in writing this post is because I just returned from my wife's grandmother's funeral in Virginia. There family members reassured one another that the death of a 91-year-old woman was not only a time of grieving, but also a time of rejoicing. If that is true, it is certainly not an outward rejoicing, because this woman's death has left a gaping absence. She was a truly wonderful woman, steadily optimistic, generous, and kind, and always crackling with one liners that would startle you with their raw humor. Any true joy at her funeral was quiet, reflective, and incomplete.

The book of James continues to shock us with this line: "My brothers and sisters, when you encounter trials of various kinds, consider it all joy." The imperative to look at suffering and rejoice just seems absurd. James proposes that pain and joy are not opposites; they can co-exist, but joy is the more powerful. And when I think about it, I realize that all joy takes place in the context of suffering. Suffering may not always be the immediate context of joy, but anytime we rejoice we declare ourselves as malcontents in a broken and dying world, protestors of a humanity that wars against itself and against the earth. Joy's life always seems to pulsate in death's grip. Because true Christian joy must take the reality of suffering seriously, it would seem that the nature of our joy in this life would be quiet, streaming beneath the surface, waiting for the opening when it will finally swell up and overflow.

In the northern hemisphere we celebrate Advent as the darkness of December encroaches, the days becoming shorter and shorter through the month. We reflect that the entrance of the Christ-child came into a dark world. We are reminded that the world, and our hearts, are still dark places. But joy slips quietly through the dark evenings, unseen but always moving forward, rushing toward the climax of the season. If we press our ears to the ground, we might be able to hear her.