Not the Most Wonderful Time
All of this talk about happiness and joy is really hard on people who face bereavement – either fresh or long term – in this season. And, if we’re honest, who doesn’t face bereavement this time of year?
I am just coming out of the least wonderful time of the year for me. It is the time of year when I remember the last Thanksgiving with my dad, unable to do anything but suck on an olive pit while the rest of us were supposed to feast on turkey and the fixings. I couldn’t do it, and I will not be able again to “celebrate” Thanksgiving.
It is the time of year when I relive the twelve days of dying for my beloved first spouse. While it is not a debilitating journey for me as it was ten years ago, it is a stretch where nearly every minute is a reminder of some part of that process. I’m always glad when it’s over. And let’s not start in on moving from Thanksgiving Day to Native American Remembrance Day (a move for which I give thanks)!
Now we come into the season of mandatory happiness. I don’t have it in me. I find many secular Christmas songs highly irritating. At the top of the list today is “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” For many of us, it is not. It is not the “happ…happiest season of all.” The world around us insists on these facts. That assertiveness, however, feels like an assault.
I am so grateful for the spiritual gifts of joy and celebration my spouse brings to our life together. If it weren’t for her, I’d miss the whole season. She is able to bring Christmas joy into our home and into our life in the midst of and in spite of the realities of her life and mine.
That being said, no amount of elevator music can make the season the most wonderful time of the year for me. Happiness is overrated. For us as Christians, this is the season of joy. I want to spend a bit of time on the difference between happiness and joy.
The world demands happiness, and we won’t play. The real response to Christmas is joy. John Swinton spoke once about this difference between happiness and joy. Joy, he said, is the experience that comes in the midst of the darkness to create hope. Happiness denies the darkness. Joy dispels it. Happiness is temporary. Joy is lasting.
The Gospel of Luke has more occurrences of words for “joy” than any other book in the New Testament. The Lukan author wants to convey the notion that following Jesus is a joyous adventure in the midst of a dark and dreary world. It’s not that the Lukan account denies or minimizes that darkness. That is hardly the case. Instead, joy is what happens in the midst of the darkness, not in spite of it. Joy comes from knowing the darkness cannot last forever.
“For Luke,” writes Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel, “the hallmark of right response to the message of Scripture is not so much obedience as joy: a glad and grateful reception of the powerful work of salvation performed by God throughout Israel’s story; in the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; and in the Spirit’s continuing work in the church.”
“Nothing that comes and goes is you,” writes Eckhart Tolle. In a daily devotion, Dr. Alan Wolfelt quoted this line. I have been privileged to study with Dr. Wolfelt. Dr. Wolfelt is the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has written nearly eighty books and hundreds of articles on grief and mourning. He is, in my opinion, the foremost bereavement educator and counselor in the world.
In that devotion, Dr. Wolfelt offers these comments on happiness and joy.
“What falls in that category [of things that come and go]? Your looks. Your weight. Your hair (ha-ha). Your job. Your basic belongings. Your feelings. Your thoughts. Day-to-day obligations.
What doesn’t come and go? Love. Once established, it tends to stick around, even if the object of that love doesn’t. Your most deeply held values, such as honesty and compassion. Your personality. The activities and special objects that have the power to make you gasp with wonder and joy.
The stuff in the first paragraph is temporary. The stuff in the second paragraph is eternal and thus meaningful. Mindfulness helps us dedicate more time and awareness each day to the second paragraph—as well as discern the difference—so that we don’t stress out too much about the first” (from One Mindful Day at a Time: 365 Meditations on Living in the Now).
Happiness is temporary and external. Joy lasts and fills our hearts. So, the shepherds, in the dark of that first Christmas night, get good news of great joy. To us is born in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.
As Christians we claim unchanging joy. We are certain, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We are certain that because Jesus lives, we shall live also. We are certain that in the New Creation there will be neither tears nor pain, neither mourning nor death.
In his book, The Road to Daybreak, Henri Nouwen puts it this way. “I think that joy is much more than a mood. A mood invades us. We do not choose a mood. We often find ourselves in a happy or depressed mood without knowing where it comes from. The spiritual life is life beyond moods. It is a life in which we choose joy and do not allow ourselves to become victims of passing feelings of happiness or depression.”
So, we choose joy. We make that choice together. In many congregations this time of year, the communities use a ritual of remembering to bring light in the midst of the darkness. We name the names of loved ones who have entered the new life with Christ. We do not deny the pain, the grief, the loneliness, the loss. We weep with holy tears. We will not cooperate with the culture of death denial, the world that insists on hollow happiness to distract us from distress.
In a recent article, Dr. Wolfelt offers several suggestions for healing our holiday grief. First, he suggests that we “set our intention to heal.” This means that we make a commitment to positively influence the course of our life journeys. This is the change from being a passive witness of your grief to being an active participant in your mourning.
Nothing has made me more frustrated in my own bereavement journey than the phrase, “It just takes time.” Of course, it takes time, but what was I supposed to do while I waited?” I learned from Dr. Wolfelt to take positive actions in my mourning. Those actions don’t fix or resolve grief. But taking positive action to seek support and to mourn our loss is part of setting that intention to heal.
Dr. Wolfelt encourages us—especially during the holidays—to turn to ritual. Ritual gives structure to remembering. Ritual can do for us what thoughts and feelings by themselves cannot. I’m sure you have your personal rituals at this time of year as well. Find ways to use those rituals to help you heal.
And Dr. Wolfelt encourages us to live in the now. The loss of grief remembers us into the past and seeks to keep us there. The fear of grief projects us into the future and seeks to take us there. “But when remembering and projecting exhaust you,” writes Dr. Wolfelt, “and they will—return yourself to the present moment.” So, we focus on the here and now of our loss.
For us, it is not the most wonderful time of the year. But we do live with good news of great joy which is for all people. I pray that this Christmas joy will bring some measure of light in our dark places today and in the coming days.
Stanley Hauerwas writes that Christian joy “is the result of our letting go of the slim reed of security that we think provides us with the power to control our own and other’s lives. But such a letting go is not something we can will,” Hauerwas continues, “so much as it is learning to accept the whittling down that the difficulties and tragedies consequent upon our frantic search for power force on us” (page 148).
It is, therefore, no accident that repentance and joy show up in the same passage of Christian scripture. We find joy – no, more properly joy finds us – at those moments when we relinquish our efforts to make life turn out “right.” Hauerwas notes that “joy is thus finally a result of our being dispossessed of the illusion of security and power that is the breeding ground of our violence” (page 148). If that is the case, that helps us to understand that the Baptizer’s call to the tax collectors and soldiers to change their ways was an invitation to joy.
“And the irony is that the more we lose,” Hauerwas writes, “the greater the possibility we have for living life joyfully. For,” he continues, “joy is the disposition that comes from our readiness always to be surprised; or put even more strongly, joy is the disposition that comes from our realization that we can trust in surprises for sustaining our lives.” That’s quite a description of real Christmas joy in the midst of a world where loss and grief are still very real.
References and Resources
Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Brueggemann, Walter. Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Know Press, 2017.
Byrne, Brendan. “Jesus as Messiah in the gospel of Luke: Discerning a pattern of correction.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly; Jan 2003; 65, 1; ProQuest Religion pg. 80.
Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
SCHEFFLER, E. H. “THE SOCIAL ETHICS OF THE LUCAN BAPTIST (LK 3:10-14).” Neotestamentica, vol. 24, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 1990, pp. 21–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43047935.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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