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Every time I see the word “joy” these days, it is decorated with snowflakes and accompanied by cute snowmen. It is usually written in a loopy font and decorates super markets and malls. Rarely is it accompanied by the other three words of advent: Peace, Hope & Love. And if it is, at least one of the words is left out. Joy has been co-opted by our popular culture and has no more spiritual significance than the phrase: “Let it snow!” There is even a dishwashing detergent named JOY!
Can you tell I am a bit miffed about this? I’m starting to feel like one of those Christians who is overly offended by the abbreviation X-mas.
Lest I lose you in my rant let me tell you why it is so important to reclaim this spiritually rich word.
Recently there has been an obsession in our culture with happiness. A lengthy scientific study discovered that people without children are much happier than people with children. Apparently the formula is simple: control + easy = happy life. What a shallow evaluation. Before I had children maybe I was “happier,” but it was fleeting. My life now as a mother of three is complicated and out of control and seeped in joy.
A month ago my middle son woke in the middle of the night panicked, unable to breathe. He had croup, a pretty common childhood illness. I held him in the shower, steam worked his airways, I assured him everything would be fine, and after a few minutes he began breathing again with ease. Afterward, he looked up at me through his heavy eye lashes and thanked me. Was I happy to be awake in the middle of the night worrying that my son couldn’t breathe? No. But do I count that moment as one of the most deeply joy-filled of my life? Yes.
Joy is entirely different from happiness. It has nothing to do with snow or washing dishes. And I would like to challenge old Noah Webster on this as well. Joy is not related to gaiety or any other emotion evoked by “the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Joy in fact has nothing to do with possessing. It has to do with sharing. It has to do with love.
Joy is not easily won. You only get it by giving of yourself. Then, joy cracks the very center of your being open and allows the terrifying beauty of this world to creep in. Joy has no defenses. With joy the pain of this life creeps in too. Yet joy is like slipping on a new pair of glasses. Everything in the world becomes more beautiful and more painful when we open ourselves to joy.
I don’t think Mary was very happy as she lay nursing Jesus in the hay. I am certain she wasn’t happy about giving birth in a Bethlehem barn far away from her mother and the other women in her village. But I will bet my life that at that moment Mary’s heart broke wide open and the painfully beautiful world danced inside. I am certain she came to know joy intimately as she nurtured the baby who would become Jesus of Nazareth.
There is a reason there is no candle named “happy” during advent. And just to be clear, joy should be written in pink, without any loops or snowflakes, and perhaps in a bold strong font like “Century.” And please no snowmen. If you have to include a graphic, try Mary holding Jesus.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.