Psalm 126: Advent Joy
You know, it seems like joy is everywhere we turn this time of year. We see it on Christmas cards and Christmas decor. We hear it in both Carols and secular Christmas songs. I noticed that it’s even on the back of my dog’s box of milkbones. Joy is everywhere! A few weeks ago, I got a magazine in the mail. The cover said, “More Joy Now! Sparkly drinks, Festive food, Fancy outfits.” Now, I have to admit that I may have turned into a bit of a grinch when I read that cover. “Really?” I thought. Are those things actually going to bring me more joy?” Now, don’t get me wrong. I love this season and all of the festivities that go along with it. But I wonder if a fancy outfit and a Christmas cookie are really my ticket to more joy. Is joy something that we can buy at a store?
In her book, “Atlas of the Heart,” Brene Brown describes joy as “an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure, and appreciation.” And she notes that joy is different from happiness. She says that happiness is, “feeling pleasure often related to the immediate environment or current circumstances.” In other words, while happiness depends upon our current circumstances, joy does not. So sparkly drinks, festive foods, and fancy outfits might bring us happiness, but they’re probably not going to help most of us experience a feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure and appreciation. They’re not really going to bring us more joy.
And yet, I don’t think that magazine cover is all wrong. In this season when the days are short and the nights are long, many of us wish for more joy in our lives. I don’t know about you, but when I read the news about the conflict in the Middle East, or climate change, or the harm caused by prejudice in our country, I want more joy. I long for more joy when the people I love are struggling with illness, or grief, or broken relationships. I want more joy when I’m feeling lonely, or anxious, or ashamed, or when I’m just struggling with the daily challenges of life.
Of course, joy won’t automatically make all of those hard things better. We know that joy can’t take away the problems of the world or put out the dumpster fires of life. And fake joy, or toxic positivity isn’t the answer either. Ignoring our problems or pretending they don’t exist won’t make them go away. But maybe more joy–more real joy–could make those hard things a little more bearable. Indeed, some studies have shown that people who are more joyful are more productive and more creative. They’re more likely to have good social support, and show resilience to stress and trauma. So, while it won’t fix everything that’s wrong with the world, more joy can help us to better navigate life’s difficulties. But if real joy can’t be bought in stores, then how can we get more of it?
In Psalm 126, the psalmist refers to a current experience of pain and sorrow within his community. He acknowledges that things are not as they should be, and he cries out to God, asking God to change their circumstances for the better. In doing so, the psalmist is naming the reality of hardship and sorrow for himself and his community. And yet, the tone of Psalm 126 isn’t one of sadness or lament, but of joy. The psalm begins by recalling God’s faithfulness in the past. The psalmist says, “When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming. Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.” Then he goes on to say, “Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.”
Do you notice how the psalm has shifted from past tense to present tense? Even though God’s act of restoration happened in the past, and even though their current circumstances are difficult, the psalmist’s community is still joyful in the present moment. “Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.” They’re able to experience joy despite what they’re going through.
Pastor Talitha Arnold notes that Psalm 126 refers to a particular kind of joy–that is, the joy of the harvest. If you notice, there are multiple references to cultivation and harvest in the psalm: “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts. Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!” Arnold says that for the Hebrews, “harvest joy celebrated far more than good crops. When the people of Israel brought their firstfruits to the temple,” she says, “they not only thanked God for the abundance of that particular year. They also gave thanks for God’s deliverance in the past.” In other words, the community’s current joy is deeply intertwined with gratitude for everything that God has done for them. In fact, it’s through gratitude that they’re able to receive the gift of joy, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
In “The Book of Joy,” co-written with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, author Douglas Abrams tells the story of Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Abrams says that when Hinton was arrested in the state of Alabama, “he was told by the police officers that he would be going to jail because he was black. He spent thirty years in a five-by-seven foot cell in solitary confinement, allowed out only one hour a day.” After his release, Hinton said, “One does not know the value of freedom until one has it taken away. People run out of the rain. I run into the rain. How can anything that falls from heaven not be precious? Having missed the rain for so many years, I am so grateful for every drop. Just to feel it on my face.” He later told an interviewer that he had forgiven everyone who had sent him to jail, despite the fact that they took thirty years of his life. Abrams notes that Hinton “is a powerful example of the ability to respond with joy despite the most horrendous circumstances.” Hinton is quoted as saying, “The world didn’t give you your joy, and the world can’t take it away. You can let people come into your life and destroy it, but I refuse to let anyone take my joy. [...] I have been blessed to see another day, and when you are blessed to see another day that should automatically give you joy.”
Like the psalmist, Hinton is able to receive the gift of joy through gratitude, despite incredibly difficult circumstances. In the same way, we too can feel more joy when we remember and give thanks for all that God has done for us–whether bringing us through difficult circumstances in our past, or simply blessing us to see another day.
For both Anthony Ray Hinton and for the psalmist, joy is a deeply embodied emotion. Hinton’s joy includes feeling the rain on his face. For the psalmist and his community, joy involves laughter and shouting. According to one commentary, joy in the Old Testament doesn’t just refer to inward feelings, but it also includes audible or visible expressions that include shouting, crying aloud, or rejoicing. And they often happen “in the context of singing, dancing, clapping, or feasting.” In other words, joy is a whole body experience.
You know, I’ve seen this joy in children on a playground. They run, they jump, they leap, they laugh, they dance, they sing, they shout. They embody joy. Sometimes I think that we adults forget how to do that. We’re so self-conscious about showing too much emotion that we only allow ourselves to express our joy in certain ways or on certain occasions. And yet I wonder if we can fully experience joy if we hold ourselves back from fully expressing it with our bodies. Mary Oliver has a wonderful quote about joy. She says, “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give into it. [...] …whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.”
Joy is not made to be a crumb. No, embodied joy is a thing of abundance. Because the thing about that kind of joy is that it has a way of spreading and multiplying when we share it with others. Author Douglas Abrams says, “The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as [Archbishop Desmond Tutu] poetically phrased it, ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to those around you.’ Joy,” Abrams says, “ is in fact contagious.”
I experienced this first hand when someone told me about a school project begun by students at West Side Elementary School in Healdsburg, California. The project, called Peptoc, is a hotline that you can call to hear encouraging messages and advice from the children. When I called, it gave me a menu of options, and I chose to hear the students laughing. For several seconds, all I could hear over the phone was the laughter of children. I immediately found myself smiling, and then tears came to my eyes. It was a moment of pure joy, a gift from these students who offered to share their joy with strangers. And it made me want to share that joy with others.
And what better time to share joy with others than in this season of Advent, when we celebrate the promised coming of Jesus who is the embodiment of joy, and the joy of every longing heart. We have been given an immeasurable gift, this good news of great joy, and we can share it with others this season through our words and actions. Maybe that will look like sharing a meal with our unhoused neighbors, or providing gifts for children in foster care. Maybe it will look like inviting a lonely friend to join in our Christmas celebrations, or simply extending patience and kindness to stressed out retail and service workers. In ways large and small, we can share this gift with others.
So perhaps if we want more joy this Advent, we should begin with gratitude. But let’s not stop there. No matter our circumstances, let us laugh. Let’s shout. Let’s sing. Let’s dance. Let’s embody joy. And then let us turn toward others and share it with them. Because joy is not made to be a crumb. Jesus Christ is coming into the world. Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.