"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. REJOICE!"
Paul, the early Christian writer and leader, wrote these words to the church in Philippi (a city in ancient Macedonia). He may have written it from a time of imprisonment for his faith, and he was no stranger to opposition and very hard times. For that matter, it wasn't easy for these emerging Christian communities in the Roman Empire.
Still the imperative is spoken and, in many ways, the imperative of his communication is simply and directly, "REJOICE." Paul may have had in mind the similar words of the Hebrew Scriptures voiced through the prophet Isaiah centuries before, "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God." (Isaiah 61:10). Somehow joy had always been part of the call and experience of faith. Isaiah knew that and so did Paul.
In this season leading up to Christmas, the call to rejoice becomes more and more pronounced. It is the theme of the coming Third Sunday of the Advent season, and it gains steam in its articulation right up through Christmas. We sing, "Joy to the world, the Lord has come ... Let heaven and nature sing!"
Now, this may seem contrary to much of human life as it has been experienced in different times and circumstances. Back to the ancient voices I have quoted . . . Isaiah knew the destruction of the world around him, and Paul ended up being executed by Roman authorities. We know the harsh realities of sickness, separation and violence in our own experience, too. I am deeply and painfully aware that at this very moment we are approaching the first anniversary of the tragedy in our own neighboring community of Newtown. I am present on a regular basis with people when they are suffering, or feeling so terribly lonely, or have faced a deep sadness. In our own family, we lost a beloved nephew to a fatal fire barely a month ago. This holiday season is marked with a somber tone for us.
So, how in the world do we find joy? How do we accept and live out the call and invitation to "Rejoice?" Perhaps this discovery and acceptance is related to the nature of joy itself, first by saying what it isn't. Joy is not denial. It is not whistling in the dark while awful things happen around us. It is not a delusion of sugarplums, fairies and jingle bells.
No, joy is deeper and much more powerful. Joy begins with the recognition of the presence of God in our lives and the strength that God gives us in good times and in awful times. It grows out of the recognition of precious gifts that are given to us in our living. And it frames life within the embrace of the God who loves us.
That is what this season is about. Its theme is that God has come to us and does come to us so that we may have God with us always. Its message is that God is as close to us as our own skin and souls. Joy is the recognition and celebration of these realities. It is a way of expressing reliance on God in times of jubilation and times of trouble.
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!" This is an invitation for these remaining days of December, these final days before Christmas.
How do we do that? By looking at our own lives and recognizing what God has given us, by calling on God if we are in a particularly tough spot of living, by joining with others in song, celebration and prayer at this time.
Joy can see us through. Joy can sustain us. Joy can heal us. "Rejoice!"
The Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler is Rector of Christ Church Greenwich. He can be reached at email@example.com.