I started the day thinking about joy.
It is, after all, the Third Sunday in Advent, the Pink Candle Sunday, and that means the candle stands for joy. Sunday also means I start my day across the street for coffee at Blazing Fresh Donuts, which is one of the addresses joy inhabits, at least for me. I took David Whyte as my companion to hear what he had to say about joy.
Joy is a meeting place, of deep intentionality and of self-forgetting, the bodily alchemy of what lies inside us in communion with what formerly seemed outside, but is now neither, but become a living frontier, a voice speaking between us and the world.
I noticed first that the last phrase echoes the words that describe John the Baptist: a voice crying in the wilderness saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He was, it seems to me, an incarnation of joy, a living frontier. I noticed second that Whyte’s definition says nothing about happiness, which is the reference points for most definitions of joy.
But joy is not overwhelming happiness any more than depression is overwhelming sadness. We are not talking a matter of degree, but a matter of substance. Happiness and sadness are circumstantial–responses to something that happens, or something someone does. The relationship is cause and effect. I was happy when I met Ginger; I was sad when my parents died. Joy is not only more than happiness, I think it is something else, something on beyond a response to circumstance. Listen to Whyte again.
Joy can be made by practiced, hard-won achievement as much as by an unlooked for, passing act of grace arrived out of nowhere; joy is a measure of our relationship to death and our living with death, joy is the act of giving ourselves away before we need to or are asked to, joy is practiced generosity.
Joy is practiced and received. It is more than a response, more than a transaction; it is a relational act. Joy is not earned, but it is cultivated. Worked for. Cultivation is a process: clearing, tilling, planting, weeding, tending, harvesting. Back-breaking work. Meaningful work. And still joy surprises, perhaps the way it feels to pick a summer tomato and eat it standing in the garden, or even pulling up what’s left of the garden in the late fall and filling the compost bin. Joy means coming to terms with all the light we cannot see.
It’s interesting to me that joy comes deep in Advent, but not so deep that the season is almost over. Two thirds of the way along this journey of waiting, we light the candle of joy. No angels have sung; all they have said is, “Fear not!” There is no messiah, just the hope of one. Also, we are not yet to the solstice. The nights are still getting longer. And we are talking about joy.
The way i look forward to Christmas Day changed four years ago because that is the day my brother called to say my mother was in the Emergency Room in Waco. She went home briefly after being bombarded with antibiotics, but I was on my way to Texas on January 1 and she was on her way to hospice; she died January 15. I thought about her because one of the examples of joy that Whyte gives is “the last breath of a dying patient as they create a rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence.”
I don’t know if he had someone particular in mind, or he was imagining a scenario, but that example is flesh and blood to me. My mother was in hospice for fifteen days and over four hundred people came to see her. They told stories. Mom told stories. In the afternoons, she and I sang hymns together. She was sick and dying and filled with joy. Not denial. Not happiness. Joy: the culmination of her life of practiced generosity.
One afternoon, Ginger, my brother Miller, his wife Ginger, and me sat with Mom and read through a list of fifty names in the back of her Bible. When we said a name, she told us a story of someone she had met and found a way to insert herself into their lives, which was her particular talent, and then the lifelong friendship that followed. At her wake and funeral, I heard stories from people I knew and people I had never met who told me how she had planted herself in their lives. Most of the stories began with some sort of incidental contact that my mother turned into a connection.
I sat at a soup supper at church tonight with someone and they said they were learning that the opposite of addiction was connection. Perhaps we can say the same about fear. To allow ourselves to be joyful, Whyte says, “is to have walked through the doorway of fear, . . . the calming of our place in the living conversation . . . I was here and you were here and together we made a world.”
Early on in Advent we were reminded that the child would be named Emmanuel–God With Us. Jesus came that together we might make a world of practiced generosity, a meeting place, a belonging place, a loving presence.” Joy to the world is not a declaration, it is an invitation–with our names on it.
Peace (and Joy),