(Photo by Thomas Froese)
(The Hamilton Spectator, Friday, December 24, 2021)
I was driving downtown and it was courage as much as joy that came to mind. I’d just driven past a rather unpretentious display with the letters J-O-Y. The O had a nativity scene formed inside. The small, three-letter word was lit in front of a church. It wasn’t much, really.
Nearby, I’d passed a city hospital where a friend is suffering. She was a large, accomplished professional who’d visit my family when we lived and worked in Uganda. Now she’s frail as a bird, having lost about 100 pounds to some inexplicable illness. If you visit, you’ll notice that in her confused state she might ask you about her long-dead sister.
Our friend was recently moved to a hospital wing where she’ll likely die. Think of the most morose ward of longing souls from some movie. “God has made a decision and I’m not happy with it,” she said about the move. Who would be happy? So much of life is out of our hands. And death? Even more so.
But about joy. Mary and Joseph, from that first Christmas, know something about joy, if not courage. Joy, to be clear, is not pleasure or happiness. It’s more. That’s what they’d say. Joy is deeper. More mysterious.
So instead of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, let’s greet each other with “Hey, I wish you a mysterious and elusive but deeply-abiding joy!” Hmm. The Christmas card makers probably wouldn’t go for it. Stick with Joyeux Noel? Okay.
Joy often grows in the soil of our longing. Our hunger. Which reminds me of Catherine Hardwicke’s film “The Nativity Story.” There’s Joseph on the difficult road to Bethlehem. At day’s end, his feet are bloodied and blistered. He’s exhausted and hungry – literally. And after attending to Mary, who does Joseph give his own meagre portion of bread to? The donkey.
Speaking of longing and movies, C.S. Lewis might also help here. His autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” explores Lewis’ spiritual hunger, his journey from skepticism to faith. More so, if you’re familiar with your Academy Award winners, you might recall Hollywood’s version of “Shadowlands” with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.
Lewis, an Oxford don who’s among the 20th century’s best-known theological thinkers, married, to everyone’s complete dismay, the American Joy Davidman Gresham. It’s a remarkable love story in itself. But after Joy died of metastatic breast cancer, the otherwise demure Lewis was shaken to his core and struggled to reconcile God and suffering.
Despite Hollywood’s glamorizing ways, Lewis is more earthy in his own reflections. In his book “A Grief Observed” he shakes an angry fist as much as anything. “God, why?” Tellingly, Lewis also writes, “Joy was a splendid thing, a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfect saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients not yet cured.”
Not yet cured. Just like our friend in the hospital is not yet cured. Just like, maybe, someone you know is not yet cured. Just like you’re not yet cured. Just like I’m not. Just like any mortal who’s ever walked God’s good, green earth longs for a cure, that is a life that’s more whole and lasting. And aren’t we now all longing for a certain cure during ongoing pandemic days?
In the meantime, what will help us keep going is a good measure of courage, not unlike that first Christmas. Maybe in this we’ll also know joy on our own journey. Not just some momentary happiness to pursue, but joy that’s more abiding and secure. No, you don’t pursue joy. You choose it. Or, maybe more accurately, joy chooses you. You just receive it.
Yes, of all the things we receive in life – and we receive much – joy has to be the best gift going. Thank God for Christmas, when we’re especially reminded of it, joy incarnate, this strange joy that wrapped itself in human skin.