Advent: Finding Joy In The Midst of Despair
Advent: Finding Joy In The Midst of Despair

Advent: Finding Joy In The Midst of Despair

After several years of not needing to visit a doctor at all, I now find that task a fairly regular part of my routine. In fact, visiting the doctor has been the most social activity I’ve had all year. I am at an age where things in my body stop working in the manner they were designed, disease has a more serious effect than they once did, and aches and pains that could once be dismissed now must be taken as potential symptoms of something more serious and long-lasting. I don’t necessarily look forward to these visits given that they usually involve a level of poking and prodding that is less than comfortable but I don’t avoid them, either, because they serve my greater plan to be a challenge to ignorance until I’m at least 150 years old. We’ve not reached the half-way point in that task yet, so we’ll keep employing the help of physicians to ensure we get there.

One of the small things about all these visits that amuse me is the attempts at casual banter a nurse or nursing assistant makes as they’re walking you back from the waiting area to the examination room. More often than not, they ask, “How are you feeling today?”

I find this question both disquieting and hilarious. On one hand, they have my chart in their hands. They already know how I’m feeling. On the other, one doesn’t typically drop by to chat things up with the doctor if they’re well. Their time is too expensive for idle conversation and doing so would take them away from those in genuine need of medical care. My token response is generally something along the lines of, “I’m upright, so I’m better than a lot of people.”

This year has given me the opportunity to keep track of the responses I get to that statement. Only twice has it elicited a smile or otherwise positive response. More often than not, I get bewilderment and when that doesn’t happen, silence. I’m disappointed that I’ve not been able to introduce a bit of humor into what I know are stressful jobs that, this year, have placed them all in real danger.

This week, Christians are celebrating the third week of Advent, commonly known as Gaudete or Rosecan Sunday, where the rose-colored candle is lit. This is the Sunday one might sing, “Joy to the World,” or “O Holy Night.” This year, it is also the Sunday in the middle of Chanukah, a time of celebration, remembrance, and hope for those of the Jewish faith. For both, there is a sense of positivity, looking forward with anticipation, and a yearning to find joy.

Inevitably, though, either celebration this year raises the question, “Where do I find joy?” This has been an unusually difficult year. There are over 16 million people not sitting down to holiday meals, lighting holiday candles, or telling holiday stories because they were taken by a disease the world wasn’t ready to fight. Sure, some of those would likely not be with us anyway, but the overwhelming majority hadn’t planned on missing this season, and for those families, finding anything resembling joy or hope likely feels like an exercise in futility.

At the same time, there are those who are elated at some of this week’s political events. President-elect and Vice-president-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were named Time Magazine’s Person(s) of the Year. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear a lawsuit attempting to throw out the votes of four key states. Throughout my social media timelines, I see millions of people expressing joy that their side won.

To a limited degree, I am prone to join them. I agree with most of the decisions that have been made and am hoping that our elected representatives continue to take the steps necessary to “right the ship,” in a manner of speaking, by eliminating those who continue to cause unreasonable and dangerous challenges to our democracy.

At the same time, though, I find it necessary to realize that our joy comes at a price. What causes millions to celebrate also causes millions of others great and profound sadness, concern, and anger. The gulf between the two groups seems wider than it has ever been and the number of genuine bridge-builders, those who can reach across to bring together those on both sides, is too few. 

The primary reading for today comes from Isaiah 6, which reads:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

This is an interesting passage because the prophet used the first person pronoun for a good reason: he was talking about himself. Almost as soon as he died, though, his words were coopted to refer to the coming Messiah. In fact, Luke’s second-hand account of the gospel says it was this passage Jesus was reading when he states, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled.” Frequently, we see Jesus referred to in this way. He “brings glad tidings to the poor,” “heals the brokenhearted,” and “proclaims liberty.”

What if, though, we put ourselves in the place of the prophet? What if we were the ones to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty, release the prisoners of debt and obligation, both financial and emotional, to announce a year of favor? How would that look and what effect could that have on our country and our world?

The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church, was speaking of the parable of the Good Samaritan in an interview this past week when he said:

… we might want to retranslate the parable into the parable of the Good Democrat, and it’s a Republican on the side of the road, or the parable of the Good Republican, and it’s a Democrat. You see what I’m getting at? The parable of the Black Lives Matter and a police officer on the side of the road, or the parable of a Black Lives Matter person, and the police officer is the Good Samaritan. My point is, Jesus is flipping it. Who is neighbor? You see what I mean? Who is neighbor to the one who is hurt and wounded? And he was showing that whatever the lawyer had in mind, when he said — because he asked Jesus, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” — he was asking him, what do I do with my dash? And Jesus said, “The question is, who are you neighbor to, brother?” Who are you neighbor to?

That’s what love of neighbor looks like. And I wonder if Jesus was saying is, life is meant to be lived following his way, as a Samaritan, as a Good Samaritan. And if that begins to happen, imagine what a different society we’d have. Imagine what our political debates would be like. Imagine: we’d have some civil discourse. We’d disagree, but we’d pick each other up when we got to pick each other up, and pour oil on our wounds, and care for each other, and figure out how are we gonna do this together? We got to live together.

Shirley Chisholm said a long time ago, she said, outside of the Indigenous people, the First Nations people of the land, we all came over here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now. And we are. And we might as well figure out, how can we live together so that we all thrive? How can we do it? And we can.

[Side note: When Rev. Curry says, “what do I do with my dash,” he’s making reference to an earlier comment in the conversation where he states that one’s birth or death date is not what matters, but what they do with the dash in between.]

Depending on the liturgy to which one subscribes, this is the point in the story of Jesus’ birth where Mary and Joseph make the trip to Bethlehem. In contemporary tellings of the story, we often gloss over this part because we have no comprehension of what was involved, but the reality holds some parallels to how this year has gone. 

The road between Nazareth and Bethlehem was not easy traveling. It was rough, crooked, and almost impassable, full of steep hills that, even on the back of a donkey, would have been difficult traveling. The deep valleys were home to thieves and malcontents who laid in wait, knowing that people forced to travel that route were carrying with them money they would need to pay their taxes. Mary and Joseph were vulnerable. By the time they arrived in Bethlehem, late in the evening, worn out and exhausted from both the physical and emotional toll, they undoubtedly felt about the end of their journey much like many of us do about the end of this year: happy for it to be over.

It is precisely into this atmosphere, this sense of having endured the impossible, that we need each other to bridge the gap between winners and losers, poor and rich, healthy and broken, privileged and disenfranchised. We are at our best when we realize we can be the shoulder for someone else to lean on while we ourselves lean heavily on another. We can make the road less rocky. We can flatten the curves. We can be the reason someone else experiences joy, and in doing so, we increase the chances of bringing joy to ourselves.

Now is the time for those of us who remain upright to be bridge-builders to those who have fallen. May you find joy and bring joy in all that you do. 

Peace be unto you.

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