A colleague recently inspired me with a story about her grandmother, who survived both world wars in Europe and then lived on in Canada to the ripe age of 99. This woman had survived much sorrow, poverty, and trauma, but stubbornly maintained that there was always something to celebrate. Perhaps that’s why she survived when so many others didn’t. Had she learned to find joy where others saw only despair, or had she been blessed by a sunny disposition?
Her story reminded me another jolly old friend, Margarete Toews, who joined the saints some years ago. Like my colleague’s grandmother, Margerete survived incredible loss and trauma during WW2. When asked how she kept going, she humbly stated in German, that in the midst of the most traumatic losses, she reached out, and God had gifted her with a happy spirit (Da hat der Herr mir ein froehliches Gemuet geschenkt).
More recently, I met Jep Hostettler, a retired physician, who now administers the good medicine of laughter through presentations on joy he peppers with magic tricks. I quoted him in my Oct 22 post, “On Choosing Joy”, but do so again during this week of joy; “Joy is spiritual depth and self awareness. Joy is like a deep, wide, slow moving, sparkling river… You can be on a river of joy in a boat full of sorrow.”(The Joy Factor, p.15) There is wisdom in the way he combines joy and sorrow.
We are close to the darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, a time when sorrows can threaten to overtake us, and yet we have named this third week of Advent the week of joy. Is joy a gift we need to get us through seasons of loss and diminishment? Is that why the Christmas season was placed near the winter solstice by 3rd century Church leaders?
Gifts of or choices toward joy are an inspiring example of seeing light in the darkness. John the Baptist is credited with seeing light in the darkness when others didn’t in this week’s lectionary reading (John 1:1-14), a selection of weekly biblical texts made well north of the Equator, which helps them speak to our seasons.
Here are just a few excerpts: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…John…came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him…The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…And the Word [also referred to as the Light] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
When our world is dark, as it is in December, we choose joy, we celebrate light and the glory of the Light. One of the ways the Mennonite Church Manitoba office staff chooses joy and celebrates is by hosting a lavish, extended Christmas coffee break for all employees in our building complex. The board room table gets covered with an abundance of sweet and savoury treats, the hospitality is warm and gracious, and choosing to celebrate becomes easy. Good conversations flow and the bonds of community are strengthened.
The joy of this annual event stays with us even as we return to work and private lives that hold their share of challenge and sorrow. To use Jep’s metaphor, some of our boats are full of sorrow, but as we approached this Advent celebration, the warm hospitality helped us push off into rivers of joy.
Writing on a blog, one has little sense whether the reader will be brimming with joy or sorrow. I suspect most of my readers, who live in the northern hemisphere, will, like me, be living with a blend of the two. During this week of joy on the Christian calendar, I hope and pray that will be able to choose, accept, and offer joy in ways that are full of grace and truth. Remember, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”