By Carolyn Shields
The hauntingly beautiful verses of “O come o come Emmanuel” have been stuck in my head for weeks…and I’m not complaining. The lines, “And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear,” precede the chorus of rejoicing. This hymn is all about finding a reason to be joyful even in the waiting, during the captivity, at the heart of mourning.
In this third week of advent, we reflect on joy. And that’s hard for people who have had it decimated, who have lost it, or simply yearn for it. The third Sunday of Advent is called Guadete Sunday, which simply means “rejoice.” In fact, Sunday’s readings included St. Paul telling us to do just that.
Which is, you know, a weird thing to command someone to do. You can’t really force yourself to rejoice when you’re in some kind of hell, right? You can’t really coerce it. I have a memory of my dad driving us to school as kids and he would bark, “One minute smile! Go!” And we would all wail and whine, not wanting to, but damn if he didn’t somehow make us smile…even if it was the most rigid, lip-snarling smile anyone ever saw. Because my dad believed that a lot of times, it took effort to be happy. (He also just thoroughly believed in this study that does have a point…smiling tricks our brains into thinking we’re happy). Or maybe what’s harder than forcing joy is hiding your pain, mourning, or grief.
But St. Paul isn’t really talking about the feeling of joy, expressing joy, or even showing it. He was in prison when he wrote the Letter to the Thessalonians, and being imprisoned is kind of…tough. Burdensome. Lonely. But it’s in these times, like the one you are maybe in now, where our heart’s praise can echo the loudest. I’ve written it so many times before but I’ll keep writing it: praise speaks louder.
In our most hellish moments, when joy feels about the farthest thing from our hearts, by opening ourselves to grace and praising our Holy (even when the words feel dead on our lips), we enter in to a communion. When anxiety feels crippling, when sadness has its freaking death grip on us, or when we are paralyzed by fear, speak praise. Speak the truth. That our God is stronger. That we are ransomed. That He came. You can simplify that praise: I’m alive. I’m still here. It was real. And go even narrower: the sun is out. I didn’t burn dinner. And I felt like I looked nice today.
It’s okay if you’re struggling to lift your heart this season. It’s not something you can do alone. But gradually, just like those Advent candles, the Light will overcome.