Dented Joy

By Audrey C. Scanlan

If the season of Advent had a seventh-inning stretch, this would be it. This is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent in which we take a breath, loosen up, lighten up, and focus on the joy of the advent of Christ.

Now, seventh-inning stretches are not escapes, per se. Baseball, our national sport, is a joy to witness in all of its nine innings, but truth be told, a lot of a good thing is still a lot of a good thing, and by the seventh inning of baseball, it feels good to get up, take a break, grab a hot dog and do some deep knee bends. It may be the same for us in the Church.

There’s been an interesting refrain this Advent that I’ve noticed across social media. It is a battle between those I could call “Advent Purists” (those who wait nearly four full weeks of Advent before decking the halls) and those I could call “Equal Opportunity Holiday Enthusiasts,” who can barely wait for the Thanksgiving turkey carcass to go in the stock pot before the lights are up, the furniture rearranged for the tree, and the soundtrack of Charlie Brown, Handel’s Messiah, and Bing Crosby begins filling our rooms.

How’s your Advent going? Do you need a break? Or are you proceeding apace, and gladly so, looking at Christmas between the eyes?

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The name “Gaudete Sunday” is taken from the words of the introit, Gaudete in Domino semper (rejoice in the Lord always) that is often sung during the Advent season. The scriptural basis for this Sunday comes from Philippians 4:4-5: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; and again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

In centuries past, the sound of church organs and decoration with flowers were forbidden during the Advent season, but they were permitted a brief return during Gaudete Sunday. Because of the more joyful tone of Gaudete Sunday, the tradition of using rose-colored vestments was instituted and, on this day, the rose-colored Advent candle was lit.

So, that’s the history of Gaudete, but what’s the practice — the current practice?

These days, our Advent seasons are less penitential, and the focus is instead on preparation, paying attention, slowing down and waiting for God. I remember one year not too long ago, I latched onto the “slowing down” idea and took on a spiritual practice in my kitchen of serving and consuming only food that had been processed and made by me.

No frozen pizzas, rotisserie chickens, or sliced, packaged bread. I spent Advent kneading dough, watching it rise — slowly — on the countertop, and making yogurt in Mason jars swaddled overnight in a giant canvas bag with hot-water bottles and towels cuddling the milk culture into becoming yogurt overnight. Honestly. That Advent was busier than ever as I ran around trying to both go to work and play “Ma” in my own version of Little House on the Prairie.

Some congregations spend the four weeks of Advent focusing on a different word or theological virtue each Sunday: faith, hope, or charity and, on this third Sunday, the added notion of one of the fruits of the Spirit: joy.

So, let’s think, for a few moments, about joy. There’s much more to joy than pretty pink candles.

What is it, exactly? Some might say that joy is a cousin of happiness, and, while that’s true, I believe joy is significantly different. Joy is bigger, and it is deeper. It is in the same spectrum as happiness, but in a more profound way.

Psychologists distinguish between happiness and joy. Happiness is thought to be an “external” emotion that has events, people, place, and things as its genesis or cause. Happiness is caused by earthly experiences and material objects.

Joy, on the other hand, is an internal spiritual state that is the result of selfless behavior — caring for others, sacrificial giving, extending beyond one’s reach for another. In our tradition, joy is a mature Christian emotion.

The Scottish author Oswald Chambers, who wrote the Christian classic My Utmost for His Highest in 1935, wrote about joy. He said the joy of Jesus was his absolute self-surrender and self-sacrifice to his Father — the joy of doing what the Father had sent him to do. Chambers says Jesus prays that our joy might grow until it becomes the same joy as that of Jesus: selfless and directed to the glory of God.

That puts a little bit of a different spin on it, doesn’t it? The call of the Christian is to emulate our Savior by performing acts of self-sacrifice to the glory of God. The by-product is joy.

In our neighborhood, there is a guy who has a long driveway. It’s about one-third of a mile long. At Thanksgiving, he spends his entire weekend setting up an ambitious Christmas light display that includes more than 25 trees; inflatable snow globes with life-sized figures inside; multiple crèches; colored lights that look like cascading waterfalls running down tall trees; mannequin carolers with automated, articulating limbs; and strategically placed floodlights that illuminate the woods in shades of red, green, and gold. It is fantastic. A sign at the end of the driveway beckons visitors to drive through his Christmas wonderland. It is a happy place.

In the front yard of the small ranch house next door to this Christmas fantasia, there is a big gray rock. Propped up against the rock are three, 12-inch, dented, rusty letters that light up with simple white bulbs. The three letters are: J. O. Y. I love the contrast.

Theologically, it makes sense: the big splashy fantasia is happy and the humble offering next door is, really, deeply joyful. This neighborhood display contrasts, for me, the difference between happiness and joy.

And so, how is it with your soul, this Advent?

Have you found a path to deep joy through simplicity, service, and sacrifice? Or are you still looking for the entry point?

There are some who, once they find the path to joy, once they enter the slipstream of holy living, can access this enlightened way of living closer to God all the time. You know those people. They are our spiritual giants. And then there are others — the rest of us — who are more likely to describe the occasional visitations of the Spirit, in the words of C.S. Lewis, as “stabs of joy.”

I believe that finding generous pockets of silence for reflection, listening for God, participating in acts of service, coming together in community to be nurtured in Word and Sacrament — these practices can turn the occasional stabs of joy into more regular, warm, and holy being in God.

May you be steeped in joy this day.

Be joyful in the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again, I say, rejoice.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Audrey C. Scanlan is Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.

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