Joy is the farthest thing from many people’s minds this week. In the midst of tragedy, whether we’re talking about the abhorrent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut or the personal tragedies like what Bekah and I are experiencing, rejoicing is not the first reflex. When we speak of grief, joy is not a concept we generally include. Even so, advent forces joy upon us, even when our spirits don’t feel like rejoicing.
When we are walking through our valley of the shadow of death, we rarely want to speak of joy. To do so seems empty, as if we are simply repeating the lines to a play that no longer matches with our experience. Saying that we are rejoicing feels like we’re trying to ignore the pain that we are feeling. Are we simply cheapening the loss in order to have an immediate, albeit temporary, emotional high?
These are challenging thoughts for sure. Any flippant joyful words probably do more harm than good, but joy is still central to the advent season. So what do we do with it? How do we ever hope to speak of joy in the middle of such darkness, such loss.
Yesterday during worship I was reminded that a key part of what we are rejoicing is Emmanuel, God-With-Us. God is with us. That is both a comforting and a dis-comforting word in the midst of such tragedy. It is discomforting when we ask the “why” questions. If God were with us why didn’t God stop this from happening? Why didn’t God jam the gun; why didn’t God keep nutrients flowing through our son’s umbilical cord? These questions are valid and should be wrestled with. God is not afraid of our questions; God invites them. That is where, to some extent, we begin to receive the comforting message of God-With-Us. God is with us, even when we question God, even when we get angry with God, even when we blame God. Yet God-With-Us goes even deeper than that. A part of the advent message of Emmanuel is this:
God experiences our pain. God weeps with us in our anguish. God hates death just as much as we do; death is the enemy Jesus promises to defeat. In the Gospels we see Jesus sharing in our pain, as when he wept with the family of Lazarus at his death (John 11:33-35). The Gospels also share with us that Jesus suffered the most agonizing pain when he cried out from the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). Jesus went there. “God…why?”
I can’t say it enough: God-With-Us proclaims that God experiences all of our pain, even the anguish of feeling as if God has left us alone.
That doesn’t ease our pain very much, and I know that well. It does, however, offer us some measure of comfort. The God we worship is not removed from our pain. God is wholly Other; God is outside of us: transcendent. At the same time, God is intimate. God walks the road that we walk. God experiences our loss and despair, just as much as we do. In our darkest moments, Emmanuel.
God is with us.
I hope and pray that for all those suffering this advent season, and even for myself, that these words are not empty. I know that at times they sound far-fetched and hard to believe, especially in our darkest moments. Even so, God.Is.With.Us. Hopefully, even in the abysmal darkness of the most hopeless night, this message will bring us some measure of joy.