Through this season of Advent so far, we heard from Rev. Bill Schram who asked, “What Time is It?” and focused our attention on paying attention, attention to signs of the realm of God, and attention to each other. The following week, Rev. Lynn Horan wrote of “The Three Advents”: the first anticipating the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth, the second the anxiety over Christ’s second coming, and the third, where we are now, a middle path between the other two Advents – which I, in Harry Potter style, fashioned as Advent One-and-two-thirds in my head. This third Advent Lynn mentioned is a redemptive space where we, as the people of God, focus on making God’s Kingdom a reality right now. It is about living, living our lives as witness.
This week is the Third Sunday in Advent. Most churches in our denomination will light the Rose or Pink candle on Sunday; the conventional theme being Joy.
I always felt I had a special relationship with Joy – it is my middle name. When I was young, my family always lit the church Advent Wreath the third week; there were three children in the family, and the working theory was this assignment would be even and fair for all of us. My sisters lit the candles of Hope and Peace. My parents had to help them: my youngest sister lit Hope with my dad, my middle sister had her hand on the wand with my mom for Peace, but I got to light Joy all by myself. I was very proud, and to certain extent felt ownership of this third Advent Sunday. It was my joy, my celebration. Until one year, another family in the church had three children, and my candle, my joy, was given to another.
This family lit the candles in a different order: the oldest was the first – Hope, but similarly next was the middle child – Peace. Then everyone in the family with a hand on the wand lit the candle of Joy all together. It was fitting for their story. The new child, not even 2 months old, was a long-awaited miracle, and this baby brought joy to the family. After many years of difficult pregnancies, here was a child! What a gift for all of us to witness that Sunday morning. It taught me something very important about Joy. Joy is more than one’s own happiness: it is witness.
When I was sitting in the pew that Third Sunday of Advent, jealous because my candle had been stolen, I lost sight of witness. My Joy was gone; the call to rejoice was a seed tumbling around a deserted place. I had nothing to witness, no reason to smile. It seems petty looking back on that Sunday, but at the time, it was everything. I remember adults I looked up to telling me what a good thing it was to share in this family’s joy. But no one remembered why I liked this Sunday so much. My story was personal, true, but this other family’s reason for joy was transformative, and their rejoicing shone forth. I could have a hard heart as a child, though, and this joy was not my joy. I was unmoved in my resentment. It was when the mom in the family came up to me afterward, with tears of joy, and with a hug for me, thanked me for sharing my joy with her family that I realized my selfishness. I got my joy back, different from how it had been before, but it was a fuller joy, rich and sweet, because another’s witness had enhanced it.
Rejoice! Rejoice! But what is “Rejoice”?
This Sunday we come once again and hear the call to Rejoice! Rejoice! But what is “Rejoice”? How can we rejoice at a time when whole populations of people experience oppression and persecution, in our immediate communities, our nation, and the world? But we are called to rejoice, even when things seem dismal and desperate. Why is that? How can we rejoice and tell others to rejoice honestly, without seeming like delusional fools? How can we show joy in such a way that still honors the very real struggles for existence in our world?
Witness – call out joy
Let people know you have seen their rejoicing, even in the midst of sorrow or tragedy. Our communities make us stronger, the ties between each of us are truly binding when we lean into them. The sorrow of one person is felt by all, but so is the joy, so the best thing we can do is to stay in communication and contact with our friends, family members, and neighbors all over who witness joy in different forms, be it supplying fresh water in a brackish flood, or working for justice to help better the lives of people who have been wronged. Joy is witness to God’s work in the world, and despite challenges and depressing conditions that should inhibit joy, we know God is at work, active in the world.
As we await Christ’s coming into the world, let us watch and listen for Joy as people share with us. And when we hear sorrow and mourning, grief and despair, listen and sit and witness their broken heart. Joy and good news does not have to be balloons and a parade. Joy is just as powerfully those quiet moments when someone says, “You are loved.”