Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7
I have personally experienced Advent waiting and Advent rejoicing in a direct and obvious way. My first pregnancy occurred my last year of seminary, as I awaited a call, graduation and the birth of a healthy, wanted baby in February. My second pregnancy also extended through the Advent season, though it ended earlier, December 27, also with a healthy baby. My third time around, the baby came in late November, right on time. Advent that year involved less literal and spiritual waiting in favor of more mundane concerns—waiting for the baby to learn to breastfeed, waiting for him to sleep longer than three hours at a time.
It would be easy to write about the joy of those three events, and I do not minimize their beauty in the slightest. But I’ve seen too much, witnessed too much, in ten years of ministry, to leave it there.
I have been knocked over by the pain of caring for people whose IVF has failed.
I have seen the shell-shocked look of parents, still reeling from a miscarriage, trying to keep their heads down and survive The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
And I have walked with a family in the church I serve who lost not one, but two sons to the same devastating illness. Both boys had received bone marrow transplants at a hospital in Minnesota to try to halt the disease’s progression. Neither boy lived to see his 9th birthday.
It seems strange to talk about their stories in a devotional about joy. But joy is a strange visitor.
Yes, sometimes she bursts into the house unbidden. She charms everyone at the party, kicking up her heels, leaving a trail of flushed faces and smiles in her wake. You couldn’t evict her if you tried, assuming you’d want to, and who would want to? She is the largest force in the universe.
Other times, joy passes through as quick as a flash—a scent of home, a snort of laughter, a shimmer of the transcendent. By the time you notice her, almost lock eyes with her, she’s gone again, and the worry and waiting are back.
The family’s story is theirs to tell, but as one who walked alongside them, the joy I saw was the second kind. It was a flash of dove wing, inexplicable and brief, amid the wringing of hands and wordless prayers. There was the day post-transplant when the marrow count started to grow, the visit from members of the Minnesota Vikings NFL team, a conversation about “normal things” during an afternoon off from the hospital.
I’ve always been struck, and mystified, by the double meaning in Paul’s words. Apparently the Greek word for “rejoice” is the same as “farewell.” I’ve never quite known what to do with that… except that maybe there’s a bit of letting go at work in our pursuit of joy. This family has a quote on their wall that’s attributed to Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” We cannot kidnap joy and hold her against her will. But we can look for her, and live in a posture of expectant trust that she will show up.
As I write this, the family has completed the paperwork and home study to adopt a boy from the Ukraine. And so our congregation waits with them again. But it is a feisty kind of waiting, a vigilant and hopeful waiting. Joy will burst in and stay a spell. Or she will shine momentarily and be gone, only to return at another moment. But she will come. We are certain of this.
Let us pray:
God of Joy, give me an expectant and ready heart to receive you, however and whenever you arrive. Amen.
The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a mother of three, the pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time through Chalice Press. She is a frequent speaker and conference leader and is co-chair of NEXT Church, a movement that seeks to call forth and nurture vibrant and creative ministry in the PC(USA). This Advent is an active one, as she is hoping for her second book to come to birth, as well as her first marathon in January.