You can prepare
it will come to you
crossing through your doorway
calling your name in greeting…
it will astonish you
how wide your heart
for the joy
that finds you
and still so
—Jan Richardson, in “For Joy”
Years ago, at just this time of year, my mother got lost in the North Shore Shopping Mall. The department store where she got lost had gorgeous, vaulted ceilings with huge skylights. My mother said the night sky was so beautiful she kept looking up instead of in the direction her two friends had gone. This was before the time of cell phones so her friends, unable to find her and worried she had passed out or been abducted, had her paged over the mall loudspeaker. She was rescued by the mall security guards and all was well. My younger brother and sisters were mortified, but I loved this story and still do. I love that the winter sky, through the ceiling of a department store, was so full of wonder to my mother that she got lost in it.
In the church that I serve, we light the Advent wreath candles to help us remember we are in a time of waiting—waiting for hope to get itself born into this world. On the third Sunday, we light the candle for Joy; it often feels like bad timing. Holiday stress levels have risen by then, along with that particular ache many of us feel at this season: a mixture of longing and loneliness, kind of like homesickness, but for a place we have never been.
This year, of course, it is hard to forget we are waiting. We are waiting for a vaccine, waiting for an end to sickness and isolation, waiting for justice, waiting for these days of strangeness and sorrow to be over. How do we even think about joy?
The old stories we retell at this time of year have clues. They tell us something important about the nature of joy—that joy can break through like starlight or candlelight in the darkness, but that it is surrounded by the hard stuff of everyday life. Maybe that makes it all the more precious. The stories remind us there is still and always joy in this world, and it is for everyone. But it usually comes right alongside the struggle.
Mary and Joseph make a long, tired journey to Bethlehem, before the joy of the baby’s birth. The Maccabees live in the hills, fighting desperate battles and impossible odds before winning back their city and the oil in the temple lamp burning for eight days. Winter Solstice arrives in the midst of the deepest darkness. The joy comes alongside the waiting; it comes alongside the pain and fear and uncertainty, and has nothing to do with ideal circumstances.
Maybe all we can do is issue joy an open invitation and then start paying attention to how and where it shows up. We may discover that joy is already happening, smaller and quieter and braver than we realized. We may find joy is in the taste of an orange, the smell of coffee, the view of the night sky, the sound of the violin.
This is a difficult season in a difficult year. Let joy find you, however and wherever you are.
God who delights in joy, help us to wait and to open ourselves to joy, even now.