Out of the mouth of babes! A friend of mine recently told me about a time she was at a birthday party for a four-year-old when one of the children apparently said something offensive about another child. Immediately, the other young guests uttered, “Oooooh!” expecting something dramatic to happen. Except, the girl who should have been offended, put her hand on her hip, pointed to the offender and said, “I’m not gonna let you steal my joy!” and continued to play.
Kudos to whoever taught her about resisting the urge to be offended and upset. What would happen if we all gave the devil and all the “joy robbers” that type of smack down? How different the atmosphere around us would be. Recording artist Rihanna agrees, saying, “the devil wants to steal your joy because joy is our strength…” She is quoting straight from the bible: “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes from the prophet Nehemiah (8:10), who addresses the people of Israel- exiles for forty years- as they face the prospect of rebuilding their life together. It’s easy to be pulled down and put others down when times are tough. But it is when times are tough that we especially have to guard against anything that threatens to sap our joy.
Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness comes and goes but joy is a permanent well-spring rooted not in what is happening around us but rooted instead through God’s love, down in our hearts to stay, as the song goes.
So, joy is a God-given right at the heart of our relationship with Christ. Joy, like its sister gifts of hope and peace that we have been reflecting on in this Advent season, form the scaffold of faith that we proclaim when we come to the manger and worship the new-born Jesus on Christmas Eve. Just as peace is not defined by the absence of war, so, too, joy is in no way defined by the absence of pain or suffering. In Luke’s Gospel, the angels proclaim “tidings of great joy” to the shepherds, which would not only be for them—but for all people! (Luke 2:10-11). Yes, the shepherds were privileged to hear the good news and to see the newborn Christ child. Despite this, it did not remove them from their social position of being lowly shepherds, at the bottom of the social pecking order.
The beauty of Joy lies in the fact that those who have found it, display it even in the midst of dire circumstances. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who was the austere prophet from the desert, was a man of great joy. People flocked to him despite his strong message of repentance. People were to find joy through repentance and changing our lives for the better. John taught, if you have two coats, give one away. Some with food. Tax collectors should not exhort money, soldiers should seek bribes. In other words, joy is found in living an honest, heartfelt life, interacting in good faith with each other. Despite his success as a prophet, John was thrilled when Jesus appeared on the scene. John declared, “My joy is now full. He must increase and I must decrease.”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert shares a moment when she experienced joy on a dismal night in the city. She writes: “Some years ago, I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated with one another, with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.
But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. “Folks," he said, "I know you have had a rough day and you are frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here is what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight, just leave them with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I will open the window and throw your troubles in the water."
It was as if a spell had lifted. Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who had been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious? Oh, he was serious.
At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.
We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it is extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes we have a bad day. Sometimes we have a bad day that lasts for several years. We struggle and fail. We lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. We witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and we become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. We long for the light, we long for joy, but don’t know where to find it.
But what if you reached deep down and found the joy of the Lord, in whatever circumstances you face? Isn’t what this bus driver teaches us, that anyone can turn things around, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy influencer. He was a bus driver, one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, real joy, and he used it beautifully for to change the lives of some weary, hassled commuters.
When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, what can I do, right now, to bring joy in this situation? Of course, we can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. We definitely can’t control traffic. But we do have some influence on others we brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name.
"No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough our situations may seem, I believe we can bring joy to the world. We don’t have to choose the worst interpretation of a scenario. We can choose to walk away from a fight. Instead, of being joy-robbers, we can simply convey the joy that God gives through us. We can bring joy in a dark space. This the only way the world will ever be illuminated, one bright, joyful act at a time, all the way to the river."
Christina Rossetti, author of our closing hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter” experienced long bouts of poor health when she wrote her Christmas poem. In this carol we will shortly sing, we are reminded that The Incarnate One, the Light of the World, who brought warmth and joy into the most forlorn and dreary of sinful situations. Jesus, who infuses our hearts with joy, if we but let him. Amen