Have you done that thing on Facebook where you type in your name and the universe tells you your special word for the coming new year? There is also this website where you can choose your own word. I don't need a website. I've chosen my word.
Joy is tough for me, which feels oddly embarrassing to admit. Why should joy be hard? But for me, it's the very hardest thing. I do other things better, things that look harder, but, for me, aren't.
Suffering, failure, and disappointment are bound to turn up, and when they do, I'm ready. I feel safe expecting them. I've proved that I'm pretty good at suffering. Consolation, success, and the fulfillment of my wishes and dreams? I don't trust that they will manifest. So I've been ready for anything except joy.
I imagine that I was receptive to joy as a child. Aren't all children? We enter the world open to delight, expectant for wonder. Then at a juncture, earlier for some than for others, life hurts us in a way that changes us. We come to understand that we are not so safe, not so good, not so welcome.
So discovering joy must be a return. Perhaps it's what the ancient Hebrews understood when they wrote about the Garden in which the first man and the first woman were created. There they were one with God and with their own innate goodness. Until they weren't.
A couple of weeks ago, at an Advent retreat, I was led to re-read in Genesis, from the third chapter, where God encounters Adam and Eve after they have eaten the fruit. How many times have I read that passage or heard it read? Yet this time I noticed something that I had not seen before.
First, there was one and only one rule in the Garden, Don't eat from this tree. Why? Why place temptation in such easy reach? Well, I'd asked myself that question before, but what if the point is simply to signify the relationship between Creator and creature. Our good is circumscribed within the confines of our obedience to the Creator. That is the very nature of things.
The tree is said to confer knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil. I always imagined that meant that once man ate from the tree, he or she could differentiate good from evil outside of one's self. But what I noticed that I had never seen before is that Adam and Eve, after eating from the tree -- that is, after disobeying in the one and only way that disobedience was possible -- brought evil into the Garden. The evil they now knew was their own. That's why they hid. They could not heretofore know good from evil, because there had been nothing to know. All that was, was of God, created by God. Now there was something else, something that was not-God. Good and evil. Paradise lost.
For Eve and Adam, joy and peace are replaced by toil -- thorns and thistles and death. And so for us.
I cannot return to the innocence of my childhood Eden. I am long past the point of denial; sin and evil, suffering and woe are real for me and for everyone I love. The cloud of death hangs over us all. But I am a Christian, and we are people of resurrection life. I know that my witness is compromised because joy eludes me. The question that cries out to me from my own life is, How might I live in joy?
In the fourth chapter of the letter to the Philippians, Paul says in no uncertain terms, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice!" I don't know how to do that, but I'm ready to learn.
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