December 14, 2009

Found by Joy

            The texts for the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) focus on Joy. The readings from Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Philippians urge humanity to rejoice, and the Lukan reading (3:7-18) recounts the ethical exhortations of John the Baptist, which is also a pathway to joy. Finding another with whom to share a coat kindles rejoicing. As many preachers will have noted yesterday, the grace of joy is not something we can merely muster in order to embrace a festive season—which often deceives by its commercial promises. Joy comes when God is in our midst (Zephaniah 3: 17; Isaiah 12:6),  and when the peace of Christ garrisons our hearts (Philippians 4:7). It is given rather than grasped.

            C.S. Lewis wrote of the “stabbing” feeling of joy in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. I think his perception that there is a piercing quality to joy is apt; great joy and great sorrow are often yoked. True exultation notes the pathos that lies close at hand. Surely it is so in the Christmas story. Grinding poverty, political oppression, and ebbing hope for the Messiah provide the context for the coming of the newborn. Amazingly, he came as a squirming baby with an insistent cry: “take care of me.”  In great humility, God has come as one of us and has entrusted the task of nurturing the Christ who seeks to be born in each of us. As Simeon noted, the child would bring about both “rising and falling”; both would be pierced—he on the cross, she in beholding his agony.

            I spent this past week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where seminary presidents gather for professional development. It has been a hard year economically for the great majority of the schools, and many have had to cut their workforce in order to sustain their institution’s mission. While grateful for institutional viability, they lament the human cost. With grief, I remembered the faculty and staff members who were released by Central in the summer of 2005 and spring of 2007. Thus a shadow lies over the joy of Central’s present renewal, rising into a hopeful future.

            We are beckoned to rejoice in this season, and it is a spiritual practice beckoned by the faithful God—who knows joy and suffering more than we can imagine. May the one whose heart always “bears the longest part” find us and fill us with joy. Amen

            Molly T. Marshall

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