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Cherith Brook Advent 2013 Newpaper
Ode to Joy
By Eric Garbison
In Luke’s account of Christmas, the angel tells the dusty, tired shepherds not to be afraid. Our news is good and it will bring you “joy.” Matthew says that when the star stops above the stable “joy” overcomes the sages from the East. The coming of the Christ child elicits joy, one that the entire world could recognize.
The word “joy” has caught my attention lately; it’s not in my vocabulary. I wonder if I’m alone in this? There’s lots of talk about “happiness”—“Do what makes you happy!” or “Why am so I unhappy?” Perhaps we have all been socialized by the utilitarian credo: “avoid suffering and maximize your happiness”? And then we chase after it in a tired, anxious and depressed fashion. But when was the last time someone described their day as joyful?
If there is a New Testament equivalent to our word “happy” I have yet to find it. Perhaps because what we mean today by happiness is not part of the
vision of God’s New Creation. I suspect it’s because the joy coming about through God’s new order is something entirely different.
Paul is very clear that joy is a fruit planted, tended and grown in us by the Spirit of God. Indeed, he calls it a spiritual attribute second only to love and the preface to peacemaking. Perhaps part of its spiritual quality includes the fact that when Paul writes, “count it all joy” he doesn’t leave out the suffering bit. It was “for the sake of joy,” after all, that Christ endured the cross (Hebrews 12:1-2).
It’s curious, however, that Paul doesn’t list joy as one of the spiritual gifts. If it describes the feeling born from the Christ-child’s coming, and if it belongs to those who live now by the freedom of God’s Spirit, then shouldn’t it be recognized as a gift God gives to some that benefits the rest of us?
I am convinced there is such a charism because I’ve experience it. When you meet someone like Nate Licktieg, one is immediately stunned by his sparkle. There is so much about him that oozes joy. How many first-time guest at our house have not been able to hold back a smile, chuckle or full-blown laughter when encountering Nate. Some are so caught off guard by his quirky cheer that they try to dismiss him, but it doesn’t last long. Eventually all are drawn in by his magnatism.
When our rooster starts crowing in the middle of the day, I suspect Nate is somewhere close by. He mimics our rooster so masterfully he can get an almost instant reply. I’ll come outside to find Nate propped against the fence, head thrown back, red curls dangling and throat thrust forward in full boast that seems to make our rooster jealous. Then he turns to me with a side-ways grin and a “Hey!”
Sometimes I puzzle at the nature of his enjoyment of life. I want to uncover the secret. So I enlist him in service: Can you help me bring over some food from the café? Sure! Can you set the tables, “Sure!” Can you feed the scraps to the chickens? Sure! Sweep the floor? “Sure!” turn of the light? Sure!...Sure!...Sure!
Certain days I’m inclined to doubt Nate’s sincerity. So I make a game of it. Is there something I can come up with that Nate will complain about? (why do we want to douse the joy of others?) I don’t mean to be cruel, just skeptical. But born from Nate’s natural playfulness is a little teasing out of me. His authenticity makes it contagious.
On a bad day I become annoyed with Nate, I confess. How can he always be so damn cheerful? Doesn’t he know what’s going on around here? Doesn’t he know how hard life is? How hard HIS life is? I prowl about in the shadows waiting for some sign of irritation, some flaw in his joy so that I can catch him and shout, “I knew it!” But as I peek around the corner Nate jumps out, “gotcha!” and giggles at the game. Of course Nate gets irritated at times and in his own ways, but our humanity does not undermine a charism, it only clarifies its source.
In reality, Nate’s life is filled with the struggles of poverty. He lives from check to check, eking out his meals where he can. But his joy is also a real, authentic. Perhaps Nate’s gift is to help us be hopeful in spite of all the facts. Perhaps equal to his bleak material needs is his ability to find and inject joy into life and behalf of the community. His presence is a force and it is infectious. Standing somewhere between a St. Francis and “Holy Fools” (the silly saints of history) Nate is carefree amidst the chaos of poverty. I mean, there is something divine going on here that’s impossible to create with our human effort.
Activists are often stereotyped as naysayers, dooms-dayers and gadflies. And as Catholic Workers we have more than our share of them all. Our daily exposure to poverty, abuse, addiction, violence of street life can feel weighty. Going up against the growing leviathan of Nukes and Drones can suck the joy right out of you, with despair quick to fill the void. After years of the dirt of poverty, the mundane chores of hospitality and the incessant knocking, more than a few of us have gotten the grumpy bug or become too serious for our own good. The Nates of our lives are God’s gift to us. They are Christ’s joy incarnate, reminding us that without delight we will likely drowned in our despair.
From the stories I’ve heard, I doubt the first impression Dorothy Day left those who met her was cheery. But from her writings she clearly knew the call to joy. Reflecting back on their Christmas celebration in 1955 she wrote, “All this merry making lightens the heart, and makes one realize how necessary it is to cultivate a spirit of joy. It is psychological truth that the physical acts of reverence and devotion make one feel devout, the courteous gesture increases one’s respect for others, to act loving is to begin to feel loving, and certainly to act joyful brings joy to others, which in turn makes one feel joyful.” In her devotion to the Christ of Joy she called others to “the duty of delight.”
This duty is not shallow escapism; we do not desire joy in spite of the tragedies of the human experience, but amidst them. And perhaps this is one of the most important gifts we can bring to the suffering, violence and poverty of our world. In Christ’s New Age the tables have turned: my poverty of spirit is exposed by the power of joy which then overflows into my life and sweeps me away in its abundance.
We have made so much pageantry out of Christmas that we have forgotten it’s tragic poverty—Jesus born in a stable. And yet, the story reveals that the human response to this is not dullness or depression, anger or anxiety—its joy to the World, a joy that overcomes. This is the Christmas story. Thanks, Nate, for the reminder.