Advent joy

2020-12-13
Yesterday it was foggy when we woke. The fog is different here than it is in the hills. In western South Dakota there are foggy days and plenty of foggy mornings. Those days occur when the cloud layer is lower than our elevation. It might be sunny at a higher elevation, but the fog layer gets trapped beneath the upper level of the atmosphere. Sometimes it stays foggy all day, but most of the time the temperature eventually rises to the point where the fog dissipates. Coastal fog is different. Yesterday the fog would blow in and then go out. We went for a walk on a sunny, foggy, sunny, foggy, sunny, foggy day. When we were in the fog, it was hard to see across the street, then a half block later we’d be scrambling for our sunglasses because it was so bright it was hard to look toward the sun. Then we’d be back in the fog. Later in the morning, we drove up to the farm and our drive was in and out of the sun. The temperature held in the upper 30’s for much of the day. It probably didn’t ever get to 45 degrees.

In the middle of the afternoon when we pulled out of the driveway at the farm we were greeted with a magnificent view of Mount Baker, about 30 miles straight east from our son’s place. It is hard to describe how dramatic the Northern Cascade mountains are in this region. Our son’s place is only 4 1/2 miles east of a large bay of the Puget Sound. It is about 90 feet above sea level in rolling countryside. Just 30 miles away is a mountain that rises to 10,781 feet, the third-highest mountain in Washington. Mount Baker is the second most thermally active volcano in the Cascade range after Mount St. Helens. The Lummi People call it Nooksack, and the river that runs from the mountain to the sea carries the same name. The mountain is also known as Kulshan. The name Mount Baker was given by the British explorer George Vancouver.

Yesterday, with the sun directly on the mountain the view was breathtakingly beautiful. I thought to myself, “I know why people want to live in this place.”

It brings to mind the third major theme of Advent, Joy. The concept is difficult to teach, in part because Christians have long claimed that joy is not something in the future, but a present reality. Despite the contemporary aversion to waiting for anything, we rarely speak of or acknowledge a deep, present, joy. This seems to be especially true this year. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “when this pandemic is over” in phone calls or text exchanges with friends. Right now it seems especially popular for people to speak of how much they want this year to end.

Teaching the concept of joy in the present has been a challenge from very near the beginning of Christianity. Advent was a second season of fasting and preparation for membership in the church that was added to the Christian Calendar when a single day each year for joining the church, Easter, proved to be simply inadequate for the rapid influx of members after Christianity became a legal religion in Rome in the time of Constantine. Originally, the season was a six-week period of prayer, fasting and study in preparation for becoming a member of the church. It was as solemn and grim as Lent. Right in the middle of that season, church leaders inserted a feast day. Fasting was suspended for a day. Solemnity was dropped. A day of joy was declared. Based on a commandment that appears in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice,” the day became known as Gaudete after the Latin word for Rejoice. The feast day mirrored Laetare Sunday in Lent, a counterpart feast day in the midst of a solemn season. When Advent was shortened to four weeks, the third of the weeks became Gaudete Sunday.

Often Gaudete Sunday is taught as a day of anticipation. We pause in the midst of Advent waiting for a day to remember the joy that lies ahead with the coming of Christ. Such teaching, however, misses the depth that is a part of this holy day. Christians believe that the promises of God are not just about the future - they are gifts present right now. Gaudete Sunday is a day in which we recognize the joy that is ours.

Like a glorious mountain revealed from the midst of a foggy day, the joy has always been a present gift of God. You don’t have to wait to experience joy. You can experience joy in the midst of even the hardest of moments.

I often have glimpsed that joy when meeting with families to plan funerals. In the midst of some of the most painful moments of grief and loss, a story will emerge and everyone will smile and often laugh at a particularly wonderful memory. That memory is on its way to becoming a lifelong companion that will brighten other dark days in the future. Often those who have suffered the most are the best teachers of the true nature of joy.

In our church in Rapid City, we started a tradition of having a night of blues music as part of Holy Week. This unique music form grew out of the horrors of human slavery. Many blues tunes have their roots in African-American spirituals. And yet there is a powerful beauty and joy that radiates through some of those songs. It is joy that cannot be suppressed, beauty that cannot be hidden, a gift for which you do not have to wait. “I got shoes, you got shoes, All of God’s children got shoes! When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes and walk all over God’s heaven!” The song doesn’t say, I’m going to get shoes some day later after I die. It declares boldly, “All of God’s children got shoes!”

May the joy of this day be a bright moment in your life that shines forever. That is the joy that is available right now.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!