Image: From Dewitt Jones, Celebrate What’s Right with the World! BookBaby, 2014.

‘Reflecting on joy’

Alison Bleyerveen
Advent 3, Year B
Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28

Today we are reflecting on joy. It is Gaudete Sunday in the season of Advent. Joy. An ancient word with a deep tradition. We’ve remembered the shepherds who receive the announcement of joy from angels, we’ve lit a pink candle. Our bible readings point us towards joy and speak of it as a discipline. Lots of things help to hold us in this moment.

Joy. An ancient word with a deep tradition, and yet, these days, a word a little strange, a word less commonly heard or spoken of.

I had reason to speak to one of my sons of joy. We were talking of lyrics and songwriting. He’s a musician. I expressed that perhaps what he was reaching for was the relationship between joy and suffering. His reaction surprised me. It was tinged with suspicion. “No-one uses that word these days mum,” he said. “Or at least, only religious people.” It made me think. Is joy only or mainly a religious word? Is the fact that we are less religious as a community the reason joy is not much spoken of?

You hardly ever hear of a baby named Joy anymore. When I was younger there were quite a few Joys in my class. In my mother’s and grandmother’s classes there were also Prudences, Charities, Graces, Faiths and Mercys. Perhaps this did reflect a more religious sensibility, and an openness to and embrace of these values?

So, I wondered, have these passed from our more secular collective consciousness? Or are they there, if we still have eyes to see? Is there something in the readings we have been hearing from Mark and John and the prophets, in Thessalonians, that suggests that in every age we are in danger of forgetting, of falling asleep, of becoming blind, of making the wrong assumptions, of thinking we know all there is to know? And do we need to be reminded, religiously or in other ways, that there is more of God always waiting to break into our consciousness… always there, if only we had eyes and hearts to see? Meeting us in the midst of life and culture?

… What joy!

Can we ever know for sure when or how God may be present…when a second, or third, or fourth advent will take place? An event, or events that we are invited to note, to exclaim about, to proclaim, to take joy in. An eruption of Gaudete! A change of mood and colour! Away with our fantasies for revenge and Good News for the grumpy, good news for the lonely, joy in a shared meal and the possibility of healed relationships!

But isn’t this clip also cautionary?

Advent is time to question some of our certainties that can harden into sin; into attitudes and actions that are not reflective of the love of God that has taken root in us, that is expressed through us, and is with us in Jesus Christ who baptises with the Holy Spirit.

In one of the alternate gospel readings for today, we hear in John’s voice…we hear, and we are reminded…” I am not he, but one who is not fit to untie his sandals. I baptise with water, but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” It reminds me… I am not the One, or at least not the one on my own. I am, we are, part of what God is doing in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s mission and God’s mission has us. God’s mission has a church.

And we hear too from Mary, in Luke’s narration of the events leading to the birth of Jesus. I’m thinking of Mary, newly pregnant and of all the fears and condemnations around that, her reality. And how a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant…the comfort of that perhaps, the conversations about unexpected pregnancies perhaps, elicits an eruption of prophetic joy…Mary’s conviction that our certainties…our expectations… will be turned upside down; the lowly will be lifted up. It’s a song that unites and unites us with struggle and joy, with joy found in the midst of suffering.

And we’re invited to see the green shoots in the vision of the prophet Isaiah as a looking, as a seeing, that is more like Mary’s song than some kind of triumphal Christian Zionism, or military retribution, or justified terrorism. More like comfort and joy to all who are afflicted.

Joy in the realisation of someone’s loneliness and sitting over a sandwich and a cup of tea. Joy as the outcast, and even justifiably outcast, made welcome and with front-row seats.

And while we may stand ready for the possibility of joy, watch out for the green shoot, practise that discipline…it seems to me that it is always a gift. An unexpected gift. A bit like laughter. A bit like knowing that we might get to be close to the feet of the one who brings joy in acts of kindness shared with others.

Rejoice always says Paul in Thessalonians. And I find myself asking…is there such a thing as steady state joy? I’m thinking that joy may be less of a steady state and more of a grace that interrupts or breaks through the normal way of things…at least in the way it manifests in our awareness.

And maybe we should be careful in wishing each other joy? This is going to interrupt. This is going to disrupt. Joy might be an advent that disturb our common ideas of quid pro quo or an eye for an eye, of mutual back scratching and the pay offs, or self-righteous revenge. In our Advent traditions, joy interrupts. Joy is a different colour…a pink not purple candle.

It is a radical act of faithfulness to stay alert for joy, to announce joy, whilst being deeply present to reality.

Yes, deeply present to reality. Joy is not pretending, it’s not numbing avoidance.

Joy is a God-breathed interruption or moment of intense realisation.

In our Advent tradition, joy is born from hope and peace-making, and opens into love. Joy leavens and seasons our work, filling us when we feel empty and wearied.

Joy is about the feels…that can act as a springboard or a motivator for the work of peace, hope and love.

Joy breaks in. It is not naive and does not turn a blind eye. It interrupts with good news…the joy of the gospel that takes our breath away, brings comfort, and elicits a passionate response…often making us smile or laugh in a moment of delight.

Joy has something do with a shift in perspective…where circumstances don’t change…or at least not yet, but our perspective and our capacity to engage with them does. Joy is transformative.

Whilst I suspect that joy is not a steady state, I think we can and should look out for it, stand ready for it…allow it to penetrate our numb.

Here are a couple of images of what people noticed…when they looked out for joy.

When it comes to celebrating life, my parents are two of the best role models anyone could have. Dad, 84, and Mom, 82, epitomize the adage, “Growing old is not for the faint of heart!” yet they both continue, in the face of some pretty serious adversity, to celebrate life at the drop of a hat. Here, they are celebrating my dad’s 84th birthday at the rehab facility where he was recovering from a broken hip. The joy in their eyes and smiles says it all. – Rad Drew

Today, I celebrate my Beloved of 47 years. Alzheimer’s is a cruel diagnosis. By the time it is finally, officially made those close to the person have all seen the signs of approaching loss and heard all the horror stories. And yet…. There is a side I truly was not expecting: the childlike glee my husband takes from simple things. The mellow person he has become, unafraid to show the gentle side of his nature, something he hid from others for over six decades. The dogs he stops to pet on our daily walks, the joy he expresses as he finds a “good, big rock” to heave at the pond ice we pass, and the delight that lights his face at the big splash he makes. Then there are small children he notices whom he never saw before. “They’re so tiny, how can they walk?!” Now, there are so many little discoveries he makes daily. I treasure this unexpected side of him and rejoice with him in this, his newfound world. – Carol Aldinger

My dad and I were ready to capture first light on Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills in California’s Eastern Sierra. Light not yet visible to our camera’s sensors was starting to make an impression on our imaginations. It was not only images that we were capturing. Strung together, a lifetime of such moments is the heart’s album. Lenticular clouds graced the sky, drifting over the landscape. We clicked our shutters and froze time. For one quick moment, that spot was the place to be, the best place on earth. – Chris Whitney

… If we were to look for joy, as a mark of what God is doing, and how God’s life is present here with us in South Sydney and beyond …and how we are joining in with that…I wonder what we would notice? I wonder what stories we would tell that proclaim the joy of the gospel? I wonder what images we would capture and rejoice over?

I think of the stories heard and collected in recent years, and that we are hoping to find a way to represent, perhaps outside in the garden, so that others may be caught up in the joy of them too. I think of the work we do together in gospel conversation, the teaching and learning that takes place, and the way that flows out into transformed thinking and lives. I think of the way we tend to each other, caring and laughing and healing each other’s wounds…through art and poetry and gardening and music, in kind acts, in sharing food. I think of the work done to call out injustice and to transform it…in protest and commitments to the earth, and to learning more about the Gadigal people and their land on which we live. I think of the work to be good stewards of our resources.

May joy interrupt and discomfort and comfort…and make us all laugh…and strengthen us to participate in the life of God, coming amongst us, now and always. Amen.