By Lisa Michaels
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” -St. Francis
First one candle… then another… then a third… Soon we find ourselves realizing that light breaks into darkness with the same kind of intensity that joy breaks into suffering—slowly, steadily, increasing in measure as time passes. Certainly, we are well aware of the contrast between the two. Light even serves as a means for producing the shadows that can sometimes overwhelm. And yet, we are also strangely warmed and comforted.
I am not of the opinion that pain must precede joy, but I know that all too often, it does.
Psalm 63:1, “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (NIV).
The holiday season is often consumed by stress, conflict, and depression. If you happen to be among the luckiest people in the world, this may come mildly in the form of Great Uncle Arthur who won’t share the remote control or turn down the volume when carolers arrive at the doorstep or Grandma Kay who kisses everyone who walks into the room, even first time family guests. But that’s not really what I mean. All around the globe, and even in our backyards, there are people who suffer endlessly, because Christmas is coming and the waiting through Advent that should give way to joy isn’t going to end that way for them. Of course, this is not what we want. We do not want to live without water. We do not want our neighbors to live without water. None of us can live without water!
I’d like to take a moment to use some creative license with the word parched. Let’s define it as burnt, gasping, or desperate…
I feel relatively confident that Zechariah and Elizabeth were parched.
I think the general consensus among many Christian traditions is to look at their story and exclaim that God will eventually give us everything we ever hoped for if we will just be faithful. I think we assume that Zechariah and Elizabeth endured infertility into their old age, just waiting for God to come through, as if this kind of pain was God’s plan all along. Somehow, though, I don’t think we account for the very real possibility that Elizabeth cried month after month through her late teenage years… 20s… 30s… 40s… (Gosh, I don’t know, how old were they?) and that Zechariah felt the pain just as deeply. So when an angel appears to him to tell him about the coming baby, it’s really no wonder he is so stunned he utters words he will later regret and has to shut his mouth for months! But that’s joy, right? I mean, we don’t even have to get into the rest of the story where their only child is beheaded, do we? Is this what they were waiting for? Could we get a glass of water for Zechariah and Elizabeth, please?
I feel relatively confident that Joseph was parched.
Being ‘betrothed’ in biblical times was not quite the same thing as being in a somewhat monogamous relationship in the 21st century. Joseph was essentially married to this very young girl, and although they had not consummated that marriage, breaking up was going to require a divorce! But she’s pregnant? This is probably pretty close to the greatest scandal ever, and even though Joseph was kind enough to keep it quiet in public, I would venture to guess he hit the nails just a little bit harder in the workshop that night. Is this what he was waiting for? Could we get a glass of water for Joseph, please?
The stories of the righteous old man, Simeon, and the lonely and elderly widow, Anna, always baffle me just a bit. They essentially held on to witness the coming of Jesus, just so they could die!
Joy is peculiar.
At no point do I look at the advent story and think to myself, “God brought all of this pain into the lives of people in order to bring great joy.” I legitimately do not believe this is the way it works. I think God mourned with Zechariah and Elizabeth, and I think God was able to absorb every punch Joseph threw. I think God held Simeon and Anna in God’s very own arms, decade after decade, as they continued to hope.
God does not cause suffering, God does not desire suffering. God does not needsuffering in order to create joy. But because we live in the world, in the way in which it exists, suffering is a very real and present occurrence.
These words might best be our prayer:
Isaiah 35: 3-4, 6, 10, “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…’ Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert… everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (NIV).
This is what God does. God comes. And God also uses us to bring comfort and joy to the hurting community around us.
Because it’s just like God to do things this way. God calls to God’s people, “Who will participate in the redemption of the world? Who will join me in bringing the fulfillment of the covenant?”
We can provide water to those who are parched.
Do this. Say yes. Light another flame and then stand between the shadows and the suffering. Draw them near. In his short life, I think John really ‘got it’ when it came to joy:
John 3:29-30, “That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less”(NIV).
Jesus was greater.
Jesus is joy.
As God’s people, we can create safe places. It’s not hard to find people who need joy. Another candle will increase our ability to envelop the sorrow and hold the suffering close. Sometimes being present is the most important thing we can do.
L Michaels is a follower of Jesus, theology student, author, blogger, educator, wife, mom and aspiring peacemaker. You can find more of Lisa’s writing at flipflopsglitterandtheology.com