Wholehearted Advent: Practicing Joy

“Celebration is your spiritual discipline,” she said. “You are naturally drawn to prophetic literature, to lament; your eyes are open to suffering and injustice. So, you need to cultivate a spiritual practice of seeing the ‘already,’ the ‘first fruits’ – being present to and celebrating goodness in the now will be a discipline for you.”

I will remember that phone call for the rest of my life. I reached out to a friend from seminary during a particularly difficult season in which I was struggling to discern a hopeful path forward. She spoke this insightful encouragement to celebrate the good, or, in other words, to practice joy, over 15 years ago. Before I had ever heard of the enneagram (any other 1s resonate with this?), my friend helped me see how I see the world. The “perceptual filter and associated driving emotional energy” of my type (1 – The Reformer) is connected to my desire to repair what is broken and integrate what is disconnected in service to fulfilling the greatest potential of wholeness and goodness possible. In my need to contribute to the healing of the world, I can get lost only seeing what is “wrong,” which can become paralyzing. It is common for a pink candle to be lit on the third Sunday of Advent to symbolize joy. This interruption of an otherwise dark season, invites those like me who have a hard time seeing the light in the midst of darkness to notice: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Every moment I am able to see the light, feel its warmth, and lean into its promise, I rest in joy. Practicing joy strengthens my resilience; it makes it possible for me to keep saying “yes” to faith.

Reading Wholehearted Faith, I experienced Rachel Held Evans’ words as the light of a pink candle breaking through the ache of a season of longing for justice and crying out for liberation. Her book bolstered my courage to show up with a “strong back, soft front, wild heart” (I share Rachel’s love for Brené Brown) by writing this Advent series. She writes:

“Don’t misunderstand me: my yes can be complicated. Some days and some nights, I am too tired, too discouraged, and too overwhelmed by all the beauty and all the evil of this world… For better or worse, there are seasons when we hold our faith, and then there are seasons when our faith holds us. In those latter instances, I am more thankful than ever for all the saints, past and present, who said yes and whose faith sustains mine. They believe for me when I’m not sure I believe. They hold on to hope for me when I’ve run out of hope.”

“Perhaps it is because I am neck-deep in a season of motherhood and caretaking that I am more aware than ever of the startling and profound reality that I am a Christian not because of anything I’ve done but because a teenage girl living in occupied Palestine at one of the most dangerous moments in history said yes – yes to God, yes to a wholehearted call she could not possibly understand, yes to vulnerability in the face of societal judgment, yes to the considerable risk of pregnancy and childbirth, yes to clogged milk ducts and spit-up in her hair and hundreds of middle-of-the-night feedings, yes to scary fevers and learning as you go and all the first-century equivalents of bad advice from WebMD, yes to a vision for herself and her little boy of a mission that would bring down rulers and lift up the humble, that would turn away the rich and fill the hungry with good things, that would scatter the proud and gather the lowly, yes to a life that came with no guarantee of her safety or her son’s.”

“On the days and nights when I believe this story that we call Christianity, I cannot entirely make sense of the storyline: God trusted God’s very self, totally and completely and in full bodily form, to the care of a woman. God needed women for survival. Before Jesus fed us with the bread and wine, the body and the blood, Jesus himself needed to be fed, by a woman. He needed a woman to say: ‘This is my body, given for you.'”

Rachel goes on to list women who have participated in the story of God being-there as liberator, women who have been-there wholeheartedly in all their vulnerability with stubborn insistence that God remain faithful to the promise of redemption. “I am a Christian because of [them],” she says. In between the cries of the Hebrew people and Moses’ call at the burning bush is a mother, a midwife and even Pharaohs’ daughter. In between the post-exilic yet still oppressed Israelites cries’ and “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” is another mother, Mary. And, in my story of faith, giving birth to and making space for God’s ongoing liberation is Rachel Held Evans. She remains with-us in her words and in all those whose voices she lifted up. I am a Christian because of Rachel.

The good news begins with women: Elizabeth, pregnant with the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord,” and Mary, pregnant with the one who would “save his people,” share a moment of solidarity and joy. Mary sings:

My soul lifts up the Lord!
My Spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
For though I'm God's humble servant, God has noticed me.
Now and forever, I will be considered blessed by all generations.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me; holy is God's name!
From generation to generation, God's lovingkindness endures for those who revere Him.

God's arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart, God has sent away in disarray.
The rulers from their high positions of power, God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly, God has elevated with dignity.
The hungry - God has filled with fine food.
The rich - God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
To Israel, God's servant, God has given help, as promised to our ancestors, remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.

Luke 1:46-55

Before there was John, before there was Jesus, there were two mothers praising God, practicing joy, celebrating the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom. As much as the church continues to marginalize, exclude and oppress women, we refuse to relinquish our light to the darkness. The body of Christ needs us: without us, the Body is not born, it is not fed, it is not protected, it is not mourned in death and witnessed in resurrection. For the first two weeks of Advent, I’ve closed my reflections by lifting up my voice in lament. This week, I honestly do not have my own words of joy to lift up, so, as Rachel says, I’m going to lean on another’s faith to carry mine forward. I close echoing Rachel’s words surrounded by my favorite Advent hymn, slightly modified.

O come, O come, Emmanuel! “I am a Christian because of women who knew a thing or two about what it means to be vulnerable, to suffer, to work within systems that were bent against their flourishing, to endure hierarchies that were designed to forestall their triumph.” Rejoice! Rejoice! God-with-us has come through their bodies.

O come, O come, Emmanuel! “I am a Christian because, when things went south and all signs pointed to failure and nearly all the men had abandoned Jesus after his arrest, it was women who stuck around. It was women who stood witness at the foot of the cross, because this is what friends do: they show up. When the ministry had seemingly gone bust, when the crowds had dissipated and disappeared, when the Empire had reared its ugly head and taken the lives of the innocent, these friends stood in solidarity.” Rejoice! Rejoice! God-with-us is present in and through their bodies.

O come, O come, Emmanuel. “I am a Christian because of women who showed up. I am a Christian because of women who said yes.” Rejoice! Rejoice! God-with-us will come again and again because they keep giving birth to God-become-flesh.

Amen.

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