Column: ‘Advent Joy’ Versus ‘Holiday Happiness’: I’ll Take Joy
By Chuck Davis
I observed an interesting social movement on the shuttle bus at the airport this morning. There were three people on the bus when I boarded. They all looked miserable. No smiles. No connection. Joyless. And actually unhappy. Then a fourth man entered, accidentally scuffing the one woman’s shoe as he passed. Her grunt and disgusted look added a note of consternation to the already cold atmosphere.
I do not know how the transition happened, but soon they connected as common members of a “marginalized” community. The inconvenienced! All four had missed connecting flights the evening before and they each had conspiracy stories of how the airlines had purposefully worked the taxiing time and gate selection as strategy to deal with their purposeful overbooking of flights.
The once miserable, unanimated, unhappy and joyless individuals had become an alive, smiling, community of complainers. They had recovered their “happiness.” But happiness propped up by the social glue of complaining seems a long way from joy. It is also a fast-burning carb for the soul and is thus short-lived.
One of the themes of advent expectation is joy. Hope, joy, and love. Though we light those candles successively each week in our worship gatherings, I find that the qualities are rarely experienced in our holiday blitz.
Previously cramped store parking lots and shopping avenues become even more aggressive as we navigate the bliss of the season. Social calendars already stuffed burst at the seams with another gathering of bliss. Maxed out credit cards groan with each swipe to the bliss of the recovering “stagnant” economy.
I wish the parking lots, social calendars, and credit cards would lighten up as I try to find Advent joy in my approach to Christmas.
You are already on to me—joy is not a result of our circumstances, the quality of service that we receive, or the effectiveness of the inanimate objects that make our lives more comfortable. Our happiness might be impacted by all of the above, but joy is an attitude that is not dependent on external props.
I have to go back to my shuttle community this morning. Do not hear any self-righteousness in my observations. What I saw in them was a mirror into my own soul. Privilege and opportunity easily can shift in my life to entitlement.
Entitlement that is not serviced to our expectation easily becomes complaining and whining. The resulting emoted and voiced negativity in community leads to euphoric “happiness” through gossip, or worse, aggression. But the buzz of this type of happiness is short lived.
Happiness in any form is a demanding end goal. It needs to keep on being fed. Soon we are addicts to our cycle of maintaining happiness, whether we use good things to create happiness or less fruitful means, like joining the community of complainers. And with each dose we need just a bit more the next time to recapture the high.
Joy lasts because it is not rooted in any external stimulant. It begins in the heart. So the question that I ask for us during the Advent season: Will we choose happiness or joy?
So how does one live in joy rather than live out of the perpetual pursuit and maintenance of happiness? It will not be attained by our best self-efforts—that is more pursuit. And since joy is a heart condition, it cannot be performed. Joy can only be received, it cannot be produced.
What we need is a new and transformed heart. That is the promise of God to all who seek him—to give us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). That is why the great King David cried out to God “to create in him a new heart” after his pursuits in happiness made him miserable (Psalm 51:10). That is why Jesus instructed people around him not to try to clean themselves up on the outside but be transformed from the inside out (Matthew 15).
Joy is a gift. It is the result of a God-saturated heart.
This is the message of Advent. God comes to us in the person of Jesus—pursues us—to offer us a new heart. A renewed heart becomes a recipient of his life, which is the wellspring of joy.
Advent joy. This is my wish for the Greenwich community and beyond.
The Rev. Dr. Chuck Davis is senior pastor at Stanwich Congregational Church.