Gaudete – a forward-looking joy

After the doomsday hype of the last couple of days, the heart-wrenching tragedy of the past week in Connecticut, and what for some has been a particularly difficult and challenging year, financially, in 2012 — perhaps we are many in voicing our eagerness to leave the past behind and move forward.

What can inspire us to move on?

I suspect, if you’ve had children, hanging around babies comes close. It’s a good time of year to surround yourself with children. In the presence of new birth my heart and mind usually go in a good direction.

There’s nothing like a pregnancy to inspire the soul. Rather than look backward, waiting for a child to be born turns one’s sights forward in hope and anticipation.

A well-timed baby-kick during pregnancy can kick-start this hope and joy in us. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s tummy gives her a good hoof (Luke 1:41) — true to character John the Baptist is!

Sometimes the baby-kick is not a very pleasant experience at all. It can throw you off balance, literally: A pink slip. A relationship break up. A phone call in the middle of the night. Interesting, in retrospect, how a baby-kick can happen serendipitously yet profoundly at the right moment in time.

The recognition of this ‘kick’ demands a response, does it not? Laughter, for some, if appropriate. Preparation, for another: We make plans and get things ready.

When a baby kicks, it means things are happening in us and in the world that turn our attention forward, to what is truly important, to what is hopeful.

Another text read during Advent comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. During Advent the theme of joy is heralded by the oft quoted scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I tell you, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

What is peculiar about the Greek here, is that the meaning of the word for “Rejoice” can also be translated as “Farewell”.

Being that Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote this letter to the Philippian church, was Paul encouraging the Philippians to look forward to a future with Christ but without Paul, instead of gaining inspiration and joy simply from what has been accomplished in past events alone?

Isn’t that the way we normally see it, though? We can give thanks and find joy and inspiration based in the past — all the good we see there in our memory. As inspiring and important a spiritual act this is, the Advent message turns us forward, not backward, in our faith. And yes, in our joy, too.

In fact, the joy we celebrate in this season — as in anticipating the birth of a holy child — is not so much about a “pursuit of happiness” defined by the American dream but rather a “longing” for that which we hope.

The German word “Sehnsucht” captures the essence of Christian joy, as proposed by C.S. Lewis. Others have expressed this joy in worship — in African American worship, for example, so often associated with joy.

But African American worship is not about unrestrained frivolity as much as it is better characterized by a deep longing. (Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Augsburg Fortress, 2004, p.6). A deep longing, yearning, for that which is promised brings joy to the heart.

In Advent we express joy not because of what has happened. The joy we celebrate this season is not anchored in bright circumstances. Neither does it emerge from a soupy sentimentality, a noxious nostalgia.

Rather, the joy we celebrate is kick-started by the unexpected, surprising gift of divine presence. The Lord is near!

And it brings forth from us an impassioned response for that which we wait. This joy looks forward.

The gift of Jesus turns our attention to others, to God in prayer, and to God’s best things. As such, this joy can withstand the darkest of times. So, fear not!

The joy of the Lord is near!

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