Dec. 14, 2014: Joy

December 15, 2014

It’s Ok to be Sad on Christmas

Year B, Advent 3                
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, & 1 Thess 5:1-24
            Finally, we have some perkier readings.  They are not about sorrow, repentance, sin, or the end of the world.  Now we can really get into the Christmas cheer!  We even light a pink candle, and that is so much prettier.  Some people even call this joy Sunday because of the apparent shift in the tenor of the readings.  The word joy is used 3 times in our 7 verse Psalm.  We also hear references to joy in Isaiah.  After some serious downers over the past couple of weeks, Isaiah appears to be all about gladness and rejoicing today.  Even Paul, who has never been described as perky starts this portion of his letter to the Thessalonians with “Rejoice always…”

            I looked at these texts and I thought, thank goodness we are through with all of those depressing texts.  Now we can really get ready for the fun part of Christmas. I can put up my Christmas decorations without feeling mildly guilty.  I can listen to Christmas music, especially the happy stuff.  But that eagerness passed pretty quickly as I realized I was not ready to let go to the contemplative and countercultural aspects of Advent.

            The longer I spend as priest in the church, the more I realize that while Christmas is a happy time for many, it is a difficult time for many as well.  I have talked to several colleagues and we have all agreed that more people die or get very sick during this time than any other.  That means that there are more families who are mourning either a very recent loss or the anniversary of a loss.  Even if you did not lose a loved one during this time, you are certainly reminded of that loss in a time when we talk about the importance of being with your friends and family.  The implication is that if you are not with friends and family, then you aren’t really celebrating Christmas.

            I have not experienced the loss that many of you have, but I find that Christmas always makes me a little melancholy.  I experience that feeling whenever I am in a place or a time when I feel this pressure to be cheerful and happy, when I feel as though I have to hide any negative emotions, even minor ones. 

            I am not sharing this because I am trying to make you all sad and suck the cheer out of the holiday, but because I know that there are a lot of people who suffer at this time of year, and if we talk about it and bring it out into the open, then maybe more people will feel comfortable in church.  A lot of people are afraid to show any kind of negative feeling in church.  They feel as though they need to put on their best face when they come to church.  People often tell me they don’t come to church because it makes them cry and they do not want to cry in front of other people.  While I understand that discomfort, I think that church should be the one public place where crying is absolutely ok.  Before I was a priest I used to occasionally cry in church because it was a place where I felt safe and free to be vulnerable.  I wish that for all of you.

            Let me tell you a little secret about these texts about joy.  They are not texts about pure joy or perfect bliss.  They are a little more complex than that.  Let’s consider Isaiah. Isaiah proclaimed that he was bringing “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted… to comfort all who mourn…- to give them…the oil of gladness instead of mourning….”  He would not have been asking God to bind up the broken hearted or comfort the mourners if the people were not broken hearted and mourning. 

We have been hearing from Isaiah for several weeks and we know that the people of Judah have been going through numerous ups and down.  They were exiled in Babylon where they spent all their time hoping for a return to Jerusalem.  When they returned, they were devastated to see the place was in ruins.  They continued to struggle as they rebuilt and there is no evidence in the Book of Isaiah that it was an easy task.  There was no happy ending for the people of Israel, at least not the kind of happy ending we expect around Christmas.  Yes they came home.  Yes, they were eventually able to rebuild; but it was never easy.  By the time Jesus was born, they were under the control of the Romans and desperate for a Messiah to save them. 

            The Psalm also appears happier than it is.  It begins with them reminiscing about the good times when God was present in their lives and their mouths were filled with laughter.  But things have changed and now they are asking God to restore their fortunes.  The end of the Psalm reads, “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.”  The people are weeping now and asking God for a time when they will be singing songs of joy…but right now they are weeping. 

            Paul is both easier and harder to explain.  He explains why we should rejoice always.  We rejoice because that is the will of God.  You might think, well that is even more pressure!  I have to be cheerful because God wants me to be cheerful.  But joy is not the same thing as cheerful and happy.  I just received one of those Christmas cards with a child laughing and then it just says, “Joyful” (or something like that).  Those are cute cards, but they don’t always send the right message.  Being joyful is not always about laughing and having fun. It’s about rejoicing in the Lord. 

Now I realize that sounds horribly vague.  A couple of years I got another Christmas card from a friend with three children.  On one side of the card was a picture of the three children looking cute and happy.  On the other side was a picture of the whole family, a couple people with strained smiles, one child clearly having a fit and the father pretending to sob (at least I assume he was pretending).  That I think is a better picture of Christian joy.  It’s messier than the joy that is advertised on tv, catalogues and cards.  Sometimes real life can bring us, pain, loneliness and fear.   None of those things sound joyful, but someone experiencing those things can still know the joy of God.  Sadness isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s a part of who we are.  More importantly, it is part of who Jesus was and is.  Jesus experienced the complex array of human emotions. 

            Frederick Buechner, a Christian writer and preacher, wrote that tears are often God speaking to us about the mystery of where we have come from and where God is calling us next.[1]  This is not always the case, but consider those moments when either you just cry out of nowhere or you feel that need to cry and you don’t.  And I am not just talking about tears of sadness…but all those powerful emotions that come with tears: anger, fear, elation, grief, relief, etc.  What if God is speaking to you in those moments?  And if we take those moments to consider what God is saying, or even just consider God, then we will find Christian joy.  Anytime we interact with the sacred and the holy…that is a time of joy even if it is cloaked in tears.

            If you are sad on Christmas, please don’t feel ashamed or like you are less of a Christian.  Let yourself cry, even in church on Christmas Eve.  Find comfort in that release, that moment where God nourishes those dry places in your life.  If you are happy on Christmas, then that’s great too.  But don’t just let it end there.  Look for Jesus in your happiness.  If you can find him there, then you will find true Christian joy.  When those two things come together, it is immensely beautiful.  If you are happy, find someone who is not.  Don’t tell them to cheer up.  Don’t tell them how happy you are.  Tell them that you care about them.  That is greatest gift you can give.  That is the gift that Jesus gave us when he became human.  In this act he was saying, “I love you so much that I am here with you, in your pain, your fear, and your laughter.”  That is where we can always find joy, in the presence of Jesus here with us.