I’ve been trying to recover Christmas time, as a time of joy, for five years.
December used to be my favorite month of the year. My birthday is in December. I loved Christmas parties, music, and festivals. My mamaw (the southern spelling we have used for my grandmother), the matriarch of our family, was the great orchestrator of joyful traditions and games for over thirty years of my life. I always looked forward to December.
On December 18, 2016, everything changed.
One of my family members died at 30 by suicide. We had his funeral the night before Christmas Eve. Two weeks later, my nephew died suddenly at 22 of a previously unknown heart condition. Five days after my nephew’s funeral, I spent the last five hours of my dad’s life with him. Several of his major organs failed after years of opioid use.
The following year, 2017, I cried every day of December. December simply became a long walk in the snow and cold toward heartbreaking anniversaries.
I’d have to wait another year before trying to salvage any traditions. But a few months into 2018, my grandmother died. Her birthday was also in December; we often had one phone call to wish one another happy birthday. To imagine my birthday or Christmas as usual without her was impossible.
Since 2018, several other major losses (plus a pandemic) have continued to nurture my belief that December is simply irrecoverable, irredeemable, irreparable. Canceled.
But while I sat in my living room last week reflecting (cynically) on the themes of advent, I had an epiphany. Hope, peace, joy, and love…these are not (as our obsessive self-help culture might invite) the fruit of grit and grinding and grasping. The restoration of advent, of December, of Christmas, like the restoration of me, of the world, is not my work. It never was. Because I am incapable of such repair.
As luck (or the Spirit of God) would have it, five years ago when December crumbled into tears, my job was to study joy at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. For months after my weeks of hell, I thought our work was trivial and shallow. It felt awful to continue to write about joy, so I didn’t. But then as God does, God showed up, and I learned that joy is possible, and can even be more acute and beautiful in suffering. I share my journey and what I learned about joy amid suffering in my book The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found.
But here’s a bit of what I learned.
We cannot put joy on our to do list. The feeling of joy is a gift from God. My friend Andy Root says, “Joy is the very being and presence of God ministering to us.” I find tremendous comfort in this. Joy is not a matter of trying harder, of being the right kind of person, or of cheerfully running around during the month of December.
Joy is like the birth of Jesus. It can be eagerly anticipated, but it cannot be forced to come. We can open our hands, hearts, and minds to receive it, but we cannot make ourselves feel joy. We can choose to rejoice over something good, but the feeling of joy finds us. As I have come to understand in my own life, joy can loudly rush in like a marching band and it can softly capture us like a bright sorrow. The great news is that joy can find us in the midst of exuberant circumstances and also in the midst of profound grief.
Last week on my couch, I suddenly realized that what I had learned about joy is also applicable to advent’s other themes, to December, to Christmas.
So as with joy, I invite you to be postured for advent’s glorious themes, to be ready for them, open to them, to even pray and look for them (because we often find what we are looking for). But don’t make advent or hope or peace or joy or love one more thing to do. Don’t make it your job to repair December.
These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Receive them, even if wrapped in tears or cynicism. As it turns out (evidenced in the ministry of Jesus) God will meet us anyway.