Thursday, January 07, 2016


 It's an old-fashioned, word, joy.

It sometimes crosses our path in a name; or seasonally, on a Christmas card. At the moment it is a recently released film. And certainly it crops up in Christian speak. But in everyday speech, it doesn't feature much.

Oh, we're keen on a few other words. Happiness is big business; as is satisfaction, whether we can't get none or not. Pleasure, that rather hedonistic term, is popular; as are contentment and its more recent obsession, well-being. But joy doesn't get much of a look-in.

Curiously we're comfortable with discussing joy's antonyms: depression, melancholy, misery, and pain. If joy gets a mention, it is as a momentary thing; a fleeting emotion, responding to an unexpected pleasure. we do not expect to live in a state of joy, it seems.

I have been musing on the Biblical assertion that 'the joy of the Lord is my strength' (Nehemiah 8:10). It strikes me that there are three ways to read this: and that, if you are familiar with this verse, the way you habitually read it is highly indicative of your state of mind.

1. I must develop joy in the Lord in order to have strength.
2. The Lord will give me joy in order that I might also have strength, i.e. I find my strength in God.
3. The Lord is joyful (because of me); and that gives me strength.

Probably there are more; and probably this is all so much semantics. But it seems to me that the least likely version is no.1, because that requires so much of me - a frail and grumpy human being; and yet that is the very one that has been ticking away at the back of my brain for so many years whenever the subject of joy comes up at church. Yes of course we can get into a habit of feeling thankful, and suppressing our inner grouch. But when life throws us a curve ball, or just becomes a bit overwhelming, it is a pretty tough ask to summon our inner Mary Poppins instead (incidentally, rather a grouchy lady herself in the books - not terribly Julie Andrews at all). So it is at these times I have to remember that joy is both a fruit of God's Spirit - a long-term result of us walking closely with God's Spirit - and a gift. Time and again the people of the Bible experience joy in unlikely circumstances, transforming their grouchiness into praise. Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Hannah, David, Zechariah, Mary, Peter, Paul... when we read their backstories, it seems to me that joy is less of a duty or even an imperative; it is a gift and a consequence. The Lord gives us joy. The joy of the Lord is infectious.

So what about no.3? The verse reads 'the joy of the Lord', not 'our joy in the Lord'. Yes I realise this is most likely a translation glitch; but isn't there some truth here, however unlikely it can seem to us? God finds joy in us: 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people' (Psalm 149:4). How different would my feelings about joy be if I stopped trying to manufacture it, and instead allowed the joy that God finds in me to wash over me, melting my grumpiness away?

Monday, January 04, 2016

An epiphany

Yesterday we de-baubled the tree, de-carded the shelves, and de-garlanded the fireplace. The sorry spruce was dragged unceremoniously into the front garden, awaiting the recycling lorry. Today I am luxuriating in space, lack of clutter and the ability to dust - whilst still pausing to pick up errant pine needles and the odd shred of tinsel, like the miniature ghosts of Christmas past.

The Christian festival of Christmas starts as advent ends, as I have been reminded several times during the season. The celebration comes only after the waiting time has been observed. This is not delayed gratification: rather, it is an extended period of self-preparation, not unlike that of Lent, but with the emphasis on expectation rather than penitence. Christmas, that celebration of the incarnation, of God with us, begins when the waiting is over; and yet there is still a sense of waiting, as the arrival of Christ heralds the beginning of God's Kingdom coming to Earth.

And so the celebration of Christmas begins on Christmas Day and continues until Twelfth Night, when Christians move seamlessly into the festival of Epiphany - remembering the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, those weary wanderers nudged out of their inertia by an irrational star.

Of course, all this bears absolutely no relevance to the reality of our celebrations. Advent does not pass me by; but it is swallowed whole by the relentless juggernaut of Christmas, which seems to have very few incarnational properties in the twenty-first century. Even the Magi are sucked backwards into the vortex, visiting the baby along with shepherds, angels, snowmen and elves. Such is the strength of the whirlwind that, by January 1st, we are ready to collapse into a heap and reject all notion of celebration until at least Easter. The last of the mulled wine is swilled down the sink along with the smears of goose fat. We crave normality, abstemiousness, and silence.

It is probably pointless to try to fight the process, and the seasons of the Church have necessarily absorbed some of the patterns of society. Try explaining to a child why you're not putting up the tree until Christmas Eve; or to the neighbours why attending a drinks party will only be appropriate from 25th onwards. But in the middle of my luxuriating in space and tidiness and lack of clutter, and even whilst trying to eat healthily and get back to the gym, I am trying to continue the celebration of the God made flesh; the God who joined our everyday, so that we might find joy.