“Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” (Luke 2:10-11, NKJV)
Back towards the beginning of November, I tweeted that I had started listening to Christmas music. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” I wrote. I said I wanted joy at all costs, even if it meant breaking my strict No Christmas Music Before Thanksgiving rule. But in the weeks since, I’ve mostly been listening to Joni Mitchell’s “River” on repeat (and every good cover of it I can find), with “Winter Song” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” sprinkled in for good measure. I made a “Contemplative Christmas” playlist, but that may just be an alliterative name for a playlist full of the saddest Christmas songs out there.
I know that Advent isn’t all about joy; it’s about the wait, the anticipation of the joy that will arrive with that baby’s first cries on Christmas Eve. I know that we are called to carry both our joy and our sadness, to feel them both fully, to not expect one to replace to other but to slog along, one bucket in each hand. Still, I really wish my melancholy would go away.
Back in January, I chose “joy” as my word of the year. If you know me much at all, you probably know that I chose “free” as my word of the year in both 2014 and 2015, and it quite literally changed my life. The ongoing conversation I had with Jesus about His promised freedom was the truest “renewing of my mind” (Romans 12:2) I’ve ever experienced. It’s how for the first time, God began to loosen the chains of striving, accomplishment, and perfectionism that had enslaved me all my life.
Near the end of 2015, I began asking: If I’m free from perfectionism, what do I want to be free for? The answer was clear: joy. I wanted and needed more joy. And I expected that “joy” would have the same profound effect on my life that “free” did. I was looking for tangible, profound, more than all I could ask or imagine change.
So, how did 2016 go? I haven’t done much of anything with my word (besides scribble “choose joy” on the tiny chalkboard by my front door). Lessons about joy haven’t shown up unexpectedly in my reading, writing, or podcast-listening. The word hasn’t leapt off the pages of Scripture. I feel like my word let me down a bit, or like I let myself down by not doing enough to make joy a reality.
During Advent, the temptation to manufacture joy is stronger than ever. If I bake just one more batch of our favorite chocolate chip cookies or hang one more cute printable on my wall, if I come up with another silly thing for our elf to do or serve up another batch of hot cocoa, then our Christmas season will feel joyful. Or maybe I just need to switch playlists and turn the Christmas music up a tiny bit louder.
But as I think about it, I know it deep in my soul: I’ve missed the point.
Joy isn’t something I can create by sheer force of will. Joy is not something I can chase. Joy is a fruit (Galatians 5:22). It is only something I can be filled up with, as I am filled up with the Holy Spirit. It’s something I can only receive. All year long, I acted (and prayed) like I just needed a better attitude, and then I would feel joy. While my attitude certainly needed adjusting some days, I think this is where the difference between happiness and joy can be found. Happiness has more to do with my attitude, and joy has more to do with my soul. Joy isn’t a response to my circumstances; it’s a gift I receive from Jesus in the midst of my circumstances, whatever they may be.
When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they didn’t say, “Go be joyful now!” Jesus’ very presence created and brought forth the joy; the shepherds could only receive it.
Admittedly, I’m still trying to hash out what this actually means in the context of my real life. So, I pray.
Dear Jesus, help us not wait for the light to break through before we receive the gifts you offer us. I want my anticipation of your coming—your salvation, your redemption, your making all sad things untrue—to lend me real and tangible joy, even in the midst of the darkness. Help this be true of my life. Fill me with your spirit and transform my heart; in the process, may my whole life become a reason to rejoice.