I've heard a lot of sermons in my lifetime about joy. Sadly, far too many of them use the word "should."
Joy is outside of our control, but deep within our capacity to experience. Joy happens to us. It can surprise us, sneak up on us, or overcome us. It rushes like a wave into our right nows, usually unexpected and always moving. In an age of carefully engineered happiness (or at least our obsession with making ourselves happy) joy resists all attempts to program its arrival. You can sell happiness but you can't bottle joy.
Many of us are familiar with the call from the pulpit or the self-help section or our facebook feeds to practice gratitude and rejoice in all things. So how is it possible that joy often seems to be hard to grasp and beyond control? How is it that those three little letters become guilt-inducing when they should be freeing?
"The happiness industry – now contracted to consult with everyone from corporate America to the US military – thinks your well-being is a matter of individual effort and personal responsibility. This is the American dream applied to the soul: the faith that if we put in enough emotional elbow grease, if we read enough self-help books and practice mindfulness and think positive and meditate and keep a gratitude journal, then we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps from misery to joy." Ruth Whippman
Scripture is full of references to joy, and none of it is experienced in isolation nor is it manufactured by our efforts. Instead, joy comes as a gift of the Spirit, a response to another, a leap of the heart as we are rescued and loved by God and fully engaged with his people and his creation.
And so Advent comes alongside our increasingly busy, blurry, exhausted and cluttered lives and asks us to do something radical and unsettling just as we are chasing happiness during the ultimate expresssion of consumerism and complex social scheduling that Christmas has become.
While we get drawn into the demands of gift giving and cheer sharing, marinating in the message that stuff makes us happy and our ability to give new and perfectly suited stuff to others will make us loved, Advent shuts the party down and asks us all to step outside into the refreshing chill of a clear December evening.
Make room, it patiently reminds us. Be honest with yourself and others. Appreciate people, not products. Be present instead of pursuing presents. Be satisfied with the Saviour.
Enter Joy. Joy is a flame struck suddenly, flaring bright as you light a candle in the dark. We can miss out on these quick sparks of joy as we look only to make ourselves happy. Opening our eyes to joy means opening up our hearts to receive it as a gift of God's presence, and the open handed sharing of our lives with our family and friends.
As a newish mother, I have spent many an hour of my day lost in wishing and worrying and being frustrated at all the things on my list that go undone while I care for my daughter. On a bad day, I feel angry and resentful about that list - if only, I say to myself, if only I could get everything done, I'd be happy. I'd finally be able to enjoy spending time at home with my growing baby girl. But that list never gets finished and is always lurking in the back of my mind.
On a good day, I ignore the deceptive promise of future happiness if I somehow magically complete all my tasks and finally get to do all those things I have missing out on, and live in the present moment with my daughter. And inevitably, she will do something, or say something, or just be herself in a way that floors me with utter joy. A joy that had no room to flow or even be noticed in my fretting mind so focused on being somewhere else, accomplishing something.
Joy is an outpouring of appreciation that wells up when we are able to clearly see and take the time to enjoy what and who has been given to us. If we are forsaking relationships in our pursuit of individual happiness, accumulating more stuff that takes up more space, and squeezing more content and activity into our already cluttered minds and busy schedules as we squeeze out quality time for connecting with others, there is little room for joy to arise.
This holy practice of noticing, of taking stock and seeing clearly, doing a careful and humble inventory of your life and committing to be fully present with others isn't easy when the delicious distractions and material pleasures of the Christmas season beckon.
As CS Lewis notes, "But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is."
Once again, Advent asks us to humbly release our grip on our own destiny. We are invited further into the darkness of letting go. And as we lay down our relentless pursuit for control and happiness in our own lives, as we begin the practice of appreciating the present and inviting others to share its gifts and challenges fully with us, there is finally room for joy.