As I sit here presently, reflecting upon the past year and anticipating the year to come, it’s hard not to feel as if the heartache of the former can do anything but be carried into the latter.
I have friends who lost their full-term baby boy at birth. My 44-year old work partner for the last eight years died three weeks ago from cancer, leaving her husband and two middle school children. Our best friends lost their 15-year old son in a tragic, unexpected accident in February. I have friends who were arrested and put in jail this year, friends who have been diagnosed with cancer this year, friends whose marriages are crumbling and on the rocks, our 18-year old dog, our friend, passed away this year, and due to reductions at work I may not have a job in a couple of weeks.
It has been a hard year for me, my family, my friends, and maybe you as well.
Maybe you have lost a child, a parent, a friend, or a pet this year. Maybe you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or know someone who has been. Maybe you are dealing with and carrying regret for relationships that have been destroyed because of your words or actions. Maybe you are lost and alone and don’t have anyone standing next to you, holding you up, and giving you the strength to carry on. Maybe you are holding on to disappointments and failures and wondering if you have any worth, value, or dignity remaining. Maybe you have had a miscarriage or had difficulty getting pregnant. Maybe you have lost a job and are struggling to provide or find a way forward. Maybe you have hurt your friends and your family and you feel as if you can never be forgiven.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I had the realization recently that our days and months and years are fictitious constructs that do not really exist. They are artificially created measurements that divide up time to give us an order and a rhythm to our lives.
So it’s not as if a turn of the calendar page erases the heaviness in a heart, or takes away the burdened weight that is carried. It’s not as if the welcoming of a new year resets your mind or helps you forget the previous.
The days come and go.
The weeks accumulate.
Yet the heartache remains.
Our groaning does not understand time.
Our pain does not end with the calendar year.
Our suffering does not heal with the passing of time.
It is real yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is here and here and here, moment by moment, and has no regard for imaginary and illusory divisions of time, nor does it wane with the opening of gifts or with yuletide cheer, nor is it convinced to subside with New Year’s resolutions. Our groaning, our pain, our suffering has no regard for hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, or millennia.
In a very real way, it is transcendent and collective- it is beyond time and it affects us all. Our groaning, our pain, our suffering has ravaged and devoured us since the first very nephesh, or breath of life.
I know this may seem like the saddest Christmas piece you have ever read, but I want to give each of you hope that even in our deepest despair we are surprisingly and unexpectedly and impossibly met with good news of great joy.
Please trust me, I do not offer that as a cheap and easy religious platitude, as a bandaid to a gaping, gushing wound. Deep calls to deep.
From our cynical and jaded perspective, as those in the midst of present suffering, there is a profound absurdity in the message from the angelic messenger that appeared to the shepherds in the field the day Christ was born, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Without context, this “good news of great joy” seems to drop into a sterile, unburdened history that couldn’t possibly understand the real heartache of the modern man or woman.
But again, our groaning, our pain, our suffering does not understand time and has been our shared, human experience from the first breath.
The announcement of “good news of great joy” seemed as absurd and improbable then, as it seems now, as if we all know that somehow joy is not commensurate for a history of pain and suffering.
But what is joy exactly?
Is it not sitting down for that first cup of coffee in the morning, smelling it, tasting it, savoring it? Is it not every delicate cut of the onion, celery, carrots and the deeply satisfying aroma of the earthy spices when making soup in the cold of winter while the delicate snowflakes fall outside? Is it not walking outside on an autumn evening when you close your eyes and breathe deep the magnificent fall fragrance? Is it not closing your eyes while being enveloped and suspended by your favorite song, noticing every harmony, every note, every melody? Is it not sitting around a table with your best friends with great food getting lost in conversation? Is it not closing your eyes and holding your baby, hugging your children, the touch of your spouse, and the embrace of your mom and dad while you savor every moment?
That is joy.
Joy is a piercing in the thin veil where heaven and earth come together. It is a present taste of that which will be fully and completely realized in the future. It is an awakening to the resident goodness of all things. It is shalom. You can see it. You can feel it. You can hear it. You can taste it. And you know it is good. And you long for it, not in fleeting, transient moments, but in perpetuity.
But while joy is an ever-present reality to which we open wide our souls to receive, it is also a remembering and a longing. It is a remembering of those moments and how they have passed and a deep longing to be there one more time.
Joy is the ever-present gift of now, an eternal present receiving, that one can experience despite our changing life conditions or our sufferings, but it is also the deepest unsatisfied longing of your soul.
And that is what makes the Advent, the Incarnation of Christ, good news of great joy for all people.
The union of heaven and earth has come perfectly together in the Christ-child, assuring us that we, too, can enter into this joy presently, despite our collective sufferings.
But even more, the Advent is good news in that it promises a resurrected future in which our joy will finally be made complete at the renewal of all things. Every feeling, every touch, every song, every embrace, every memory, every unsatisfied longing will be satisfied. Every terrible wrong will be made right. Every deep wound will be healed. Every crushing heartache will be comforted. Every painful tear will be wiped away.
Praise God, there is good news, indeed, and it will be a great joy for all the people.