“And make thy chosen people joyful.” — The whole congregation prays this in the final responses for both morning and evening services in the Book of Common Prayer.
I want to spend December focusing on Joy, as well as Jane Austen’s Advent and Christmas, and in January return to Science (apologies for the change).
For me, joy is a challenge right now. I will not be with any of my children or grandchildren for Christmas, and am living in a country that does not recognize that holiday. Dear friends of mine are suffering in a country torn by war. In fact, many in the world are suffering greatly. In those circumstances, is it even right to rejoice?
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” wrote Paul from prison (Phil. 4:4). He was not looking at his situation, but at the Lord.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” proclaimed Mary, a pregnant, unmarried teenager (Lk. 1:46-47). She was rejoicing, not in her circumstances, but in God. (Though in most art showing the “Visitation,” when Mary visited her also-pregnant cousin Elizabeth and said this, the artists seem to miss the joy! Or perhaps they just see it as quieter, more hidden in Mary’s heart.)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world,” said Jesus as he prepared for his painful, shameful death on the cross (John 16: 20-21). Joy would come from his suffering, as joy comes from the suffering of a baby’s birth.
But how can we rejoice always? Mike Mason in Champagne for the Soul: Celebrating God’s Gift of Joy claims that “Joy is like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it grows.” He set out on a 90-day experiment, choosing daily to “be joyful in the Lord.” He did it at a time of grief and loss in his life, recognizing his own tendency to melancholy rather than joy, a tendency which I share. He is not talking about a joy which ignores sorrow, but which arises in the midst of it: “Christian joy is rooted in darkness, chaos, meaninglessness, sorrow”—perhaps we could say, in the cross. What a paradox! Joy in the midst of sorrow. Is it even possible?
Morning Prayer in The Book of Common Prayer, which Jane Austen probably read daily all her life, includes Psalm 95 which begins:
“O Come let us sing unto the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.”
Later in the service, either Zechariah’s prophecy on the birth of John the Baptist is read (Luke 1:68-79), or Psalm 100, which begins:
“O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.”
The other daily prayer service, Evening Prayer, includes Mary’s song of praise from Luke 1:46-55, which begins with the verse quoted above:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”
Or Psalm 98 may be read instead:
“O Sing unto the Lord a new song: for he hath done marvellous things. . . . Shew yourselves joyful unto the Lord, all ye lands: sing, rejoice, and give thanks. . . . “
Later in Evening Prayer either Simeon’s prayer of praise after seeing the child Jesus (Luke 2:29-32) is read, or Psalm 67 which includes,
“O let the nations rejoice and be glad.”
So there were reminders to devout Anglicans like Jane Austen several times every day to rejoice! I need such reminders myself. When I read “O Come let us sing unto the Lord: let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation,” as I take a break from the computer, walking up and down the hallway, my heart lifts and I begin to rejoice.
Avenues to Joy
I am trying this month to spend 30 minutes a day–that’s three 10-minute breaks–focusing on joy. How? By reading and meditating on verses related to joy, including those in the Daily Prayer services. By re-reading the short chapters of Champagne for the Soul. Through daily Advent devotionals with art and music online.
I know some things that help me worship more deeply (See Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas); we’re all different in this. For me the senses are powerful; art, music, beauty, and poetry are avenues that help lead me to God’s joy. Nature is another, so I’ll go out and walk when I can and enjoy the birds and shrubs, even here in the midst of the city, choosing to rejoice in their Creator.
I may also watch Christmas movies that show joy even in sorrow; the best ones are movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” which make me cry even as they give joy!
Experiencing joy won’t keep me from praying deeply and compassionately for those who are suffering, and helping them however I can. But I ask God to enable me to rejoice in the thought that wherever they are, no matter how deep the darkness, He is there.
Can I choose joy right now, in this moment, in this “day that the Lord has made”?
Maybe you’d like to read Psalm 95, 98, 100, or 118 today and join the Psalmist’s joy. What helps you to rejoice? How do you find joy in the midst of daily life and its trials, and in a suffering world? I really want to know!