This is the Sunday on which we light the Advent candle that represents joy, but as a nation we're reeling from the tragedy of the school shooting in Newtown, CT, on Friday. Our hearts are full of sadness, anger, pain, outrage--anything but joy. Why have innocent children and teachers had to suffer because of the lunacy of a deranged individual? Why do mass shootings keep on happening in our country? Why do so many of our fellow citizens continue to say that "the time isn't right" to talk about gun violence, as if there will ever be a better time than in the wake of another such tragedy? So many questions, so few answers, and still the candle of joy remains on the altar, waiting to be lit. What would happen if we didn't light it this year? What if Christians everywhere collectively said, "It's just not appropriate to rejoice this year. The killings in Newtown, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, Wisconsin, call us to mourn rather than to rejoice"? Deaths from natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy are hard enough to deal with, but premeditated murders of the innocent seem to strike us even more deeply. Joy? That's the last emotion we feel right now.
The apostle Paul knew something about suffering. Over the course of his career he was imprisoned, beaten, whipped, stoned, and even shipwrecked, before ending his life as a martyr when the emperor Nero cast blame for the Great Fire of Rome on a small, mistrusted religious sect called Christians. According to the book of Acts, one of the places where Paul was imprisoned and beaten was Philippi, whose church was the recipient of Paul's letter in which he urges them to rejoice always.
Always, even in the face of disaster? Even when our hearts are filled with sorrow? Are we to deny our true feelings and pretend everything is OK? I don't think that's what Paul was arguing. This is the same person who urged the Roman Christians to rejoice with those who are rejoicing, but to weep with those who are weeping. We don't rejoice because of our circumstances but in spite of our circumstances. Joy may be distinguished from happiness, for whereas happiness is a result of circumstances, joy is a choice. Making the choice to rejoice, even in the midst of tragedy, is a reminder that life is a precious gift, that we have to make the most of today because we have no guarantee of tomorrow, and that we have people who love us and whom we love. The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran captures the link between joy and sorrow in a profound way in this excerpt from The Prophet.
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes
filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was
hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is
only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that
in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay,
sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board,
remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver,
needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.