You know the drill. Everyone goes into overdrive as soon as the turkey hits the fridge. The four Sundays of Advent may be filled with, Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love – but “in, with, and under” it all there’s frustration, chaos, and struggle. Everything has to work around who will be in town when – and therefore able to help with -- you name it: all the stuff of the season.
But somehow, every year, struggle turns to Joy on Christmas Eve. At least, it used to.
John 1:1-18 is the Gospel assigned for Christmas day. It’s one of my very favorites, but, neither of the congregations I served as a parish pastor held worship on Christmas day. So, I worked it into the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. As everyone held their candles and the firelight began to spread throughout the sanctuary, I read John 1:1-18:
In the beginning, was the Word…and the Word was God….
What came into being in him was life…
And the Word became flesh and lived among us…
from his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace….”
Then, as the first chords of Silent Night began to sound, it happened. Not relief, not happiness but Joy. Every. Year.
Until it didn’t.
Something happened when I left parish ministry and joined the staff of our local Bishop’s office. Or I should say, something didn’t happen. The Advent to Christmas rhythm in the bishop’s office was different than in the congregation. By mid-December, the phones had gone quiet, and emails and texts slowed way down. The office closed on December 23.
Soon, I discovered that the congregation I attended, didn’t read John 1 on Christmas Eve. Since I still needed to hear it, I came up with a strategy to recreate that moment. I waited until my family was asleep, turned off all the lights except the tree, and read John to myself.
It didn’t work. That feeling of joy didn’t show up. Why not?
My Living the Resurrection partner, Rev. T. Conrad Selnick says that “joy is realized hope.” In my mind, that connects with Brene Brown’s finding that hope is born from struggle. Joy is deep and fulfilling because it grows as suffering ends. If those two ideas are linked, then it may be that the joy I experienced in those candlelit moments, came out of the frustrations, and struggles of the Advent texts and congregational life leading up to Christmas eve.
The author of the Gospel of John lived with struggle, whether an individual or a community. They were under the violent power of the Roman Empire. The sin that lives in every human being, the desire to be like God, creates Empire every time, and throughout all time. Old Testament or New. Then and now, one tyrant is overthrown, and another rises in their place. We struggle under the power of that same sin. Yet, deep inside each of us, burns the hope of the reign of God, who lavishes us with grace upon grace.
I haven’t done this yet, but I’m going to try a new tactic this Christmas Eve. Instead of reading John 1 in the context of a peaceful Christmas season, I’m going to spend time during this season reflecting on the power sin and death have in the world: the wars, the various “isms” we use to hold power over others, the innocent lives taken by our insufficient gun laws, the advancing impacts of climate change, and the violence of our uncivil discourse. My hope is that with reflection and new learning I’ll find ways to advocate and support movements toward hope, peace, joy, and love.
If joy is realized hope, then I need to tap into the hope that is real. The “sewer rat” hope … not the flighty “thing with feathers” of Emily Dickenson. None of the four theme words for the Advent season are fluffy. They each come out of pain, longing, and life. I’ll be spending my Advent with them and invite you to do the same. Maybe then, joy will return on Christmas Eve.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:4
Definitions/descriptions of various emotions – including hope, and Joy:
Brene Brown. 2021. Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Random House: New York.
Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. 2016. The Book of Joy. Avery: New York.
Poem: “Hope is not a bird, Emily, it’s a Sewer Rat” by Caitlin Seida.