16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.23May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
I don't know when or how it came to be that each Sunday in Advent was assigned a different "theme"-- peace, joy, hope, love. I don't even know what the "correct" order of these themes might be. But I am suspicious of anything that overly delimits the gospel (which is funny, because I do use the Revised Common Lectionary). I think these are great and wonderful themes for our remembrance of the first Advent: the birth of Jesus, who was and is the Christ, as a human baby in Bethlehem (or wherever). But I think these themes are stretched nearly to the breaking point-- especially in the first weeks of Advent-- when we consider the second Advent, the coming of Christ in power to restore peace and justice.
Joy is a tricky concept. I know that there have been times in my life when I felt no joy, when I was in mourning, or depression, or anger, or any one of a zillion different emotions. But scripturally speaking, joy can and should be immune to those human conditions. The joy of which tomorrow's 1 Thessalonians passage speaks occurs in the context of daily, breathless anticipation of that second Advent, as well as the daily realities of oppression, torture and death. In these circumstances, Paul advises, practice joy. Rejoice.
The verses immediately before the lectionary passage starts further place joy in a context of dealing with the messy realities of life in community: It asks for respect for church leaders (one can assume, they weren't getting it). It urges confrontation of those who are not pulling their weight (one can assume, it was a problem). It recognizes that not everyone is in the same place with regard to faith-- some are weak, some are faint-hearted (in honesty, maybe four days a week this describes me, and many other pastors I know and love). It states flat out that some are doing evil to others-- and forbids any attempts at payback. Nevertheless, Paul advises, practice joy. Rejoice.
In the jingle-joy mentality that is the Chri$tma$ Machine, there is no room for any of the above messy realities. Everyone is to put on their happy smiles along with their reindeer sweaters, and check the realities at the door, no struggles allowed here, thanks. Paul points us in another direction, towards a kind of joy that is deeper than fleeting emotions and circumstances. The joy we are invited to participate in has Christ as its source and its goal, with the cornerstones of prayer and gratitude anchoring it. The joy he describes is the joy of meeting God in the community, and knowing that God will be with us through the disrespect, the slacking off, the moments (or years) of doubt, and the anger.
Joy to the world, we will sing. Maybe we can describe that joy and live it in a way that doesn't feel false, but like the deepest truth suddenly uncovered.