What brings you great joy? Eating popcorn and watching a movie with someone you love? Football? Baking cookies with your grandkids? Walking the beach alone? Visiting a sick friend? Volunteering for something about which you care deeply?
Happiness is the fourth of July. We’re happy at the parade. We’re happy at the beach. We’re happy at the barbecue. We’re happy when we get to eat homemade ice cream and hold warm puppies and babies. We’re happy watching fireworks. Fireworks are great. We love them. But we know that we can’t make a life of them.
When God sent Jesus into the world for joy, the world had the opportunity to change its story. Jesus didn’t come into the world during a fourth of July picnic. He came in the middle of the Roman occupation of his homeland and the political oppression of a corrupt governor Herod. No doubt someone was crucified for some minor crime the week he was born in Bethlehem, as was common Roman practice. But God’s ways are not our ways, and God would have none of it. In Christ, God created joy, a new set point for humankind. Joy is no longer a random and fleeting thing, but our birthright and the natural state-of-affairs for human creatures, for you and for me.
It has been said, “You can’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday. You also can’t get to Christmas without going through Advent. You can’t get through Advent to Christmas’s promised joy without first going through lament for the sorrow and suffering of our lives and for this world.
I learned about grief at the age of 15 when my grandfather died. It wasn’t actually his loss that distressed me most. It was sitting with my grandmother when she received the news that my grandfather had passed. I remember that she went into the bedroom, flung herself across the bed facedown and wept inconsolably. I loved her beyond measure, and in this moment knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make her feel any better. Rather, I sat next to her and rubbed her back as she wept, feeling her suffering, and loving her as best I could. I didn’t know what I was doing. We all feel inadequate to the task.
In Advent we simply show up for one another. We can’t cure the suffering of humankind. That’s totally above our paygrade. It’s enough to acknowledge what someone is going through without offering unsolicited advice. Simply say: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this right now. You won’t go through it alone.” Instead of acting as if we know how the other feels, we show up in a way that demonstrates empathy: bringing a meal, cleaning the kitchen, walking the dog, watching that game together without talking, just to keep one another company while we go through whatever we’re going through.
Knowing God’s joy depends on our willingness to trust God’s goodness whatever life may bring. God shows up for us through Emmanuel, God with us. Therefore, we can show up for one another, even when it’s hard. As we enter these last days of Advent and prepare for the season that is Christmastide, we first acknowledge the grief that life does not always turn out as we wish. Name your sad and your sorry, then witness what God will do.
This Christmas may you embody joy, born out of sorrow, for life. Listen, for soon we will hear the fulfilled promise of God: “For behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy…”
Rev. Dr. Anna V. Copeland
Senior Minister, The Community Church of Vero Beach