Monday, December 17, 2012

Waiting with joy

"We'll arrive in two more hours!" My friend Kt sent me this text message a few minutes ago, letting me know that she and her husband Wyatt would be arriving soon. Several of my Texas friends have families to visit in Florida, and Alabama makes a perfect halfway-haven. Yesterday I spent all day looking forward to the arrival of Amanda, Zachary, and Baby Lily; today I've been receiving frequent updates as Kt and Wyatt draw near (Wyatt sent the best so far: "Over the river & through the woods / To Bethany's house we go!).

Yesterday was also the third Sunday of Advent: the Sunday when most churches light a rose-colored or blue candle, its color a symbol of joy in the midst of a penitential season. Many liturgies call this Sunday "Gaudete" Sunday -- "gaudete" is a Latin imperative, meaning "Y'all rejoice!" The coincidence of personal and liturgical expectation has set me pondering what it means to rejoice as we wait.

My parents named me "Joy" (it is my middle name), and my teachers trained me to be a scholar, so this morning I curled up with a thick volume of Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (My college boyfriend gave me the entire 10-volume set for Christmas one year. That, and a harp. But that's a story for another entry). At first I thought I should look up χαίρω. This verb means "I rejoice" and appears in familiar Bible verses such as Philippians 4:4-6, a passage often used on Gaudete Sunday. However, as I looked at my Greek New Testament, I realized that of all the times "joy" appears in the New Testament,  it appears most often in Luke, and Luke uses a different word. In Luke 1, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary receive astounding promises: they all learn of children--their children--whose coming will be a cause for joy. The verb for "rejoice" or "be joyful" in these passages is αγάλλομαι. Stick with me now, because I learned some fascinating (and practical) things about joy from this word.

Kittel's notes, first of all, that the verb αγάλλομαι is a "new construct" derived from an older Greek word that means "to make resplendent, to adorn," and the new word builds on its source, meaning "to adorn oneself," and even "to be proud."  Aγάλλομαι only appears in Biblical language (both the Septuagint and New Testament) and in early Christian writings. Unlike χαίρω, which appears in Greek texts throughout the ancient world, and which can refer to many kinds of merriment, αγάλλομαι never loses its religious connotations, always meaning "joy in God or joy before Him." Perhaps most fascinatingly, αγάλλομαι refers to joy in both the present and future; faith makes future joy real in the present. And finally, even individual joy--such as Elizabeth's delight in finally conceiving a child--is always eschatological and communal: my joy will be bone-shakingly real to me, but is also yours as it looks forward to the full redemption Christ brings.

My fellow word-nerds probably enjoyed that lesson in etymology, but what does all that Greek say about how I can practice the joyful expectation of Advent? Here are a few thoughts, which I have derived both from Herr Kittel and from the experience of waiting for my beloved friends to reach my door:

* I adorn myself and my life in order to demonstrate my joyful hope.  As I wait for friends, I make sure that my rooms are in order, that the lights on the Christmas tree are shining. I put on a favorite shirt and brush my hair. Even before my friends arrive, I will show that I am about to participate in something wonderful.  As I wait for Christmas, I hang symbols of hope on a tiny tree, inviting all who enter to read evergreen signs that foretell unending joy.

* I allow the joy-that-is-coming to direct my work and ways. Because I am confident that Kt and Wyatt will come, I have set dough rising for bread. The smell and texture of that food--already good, but not yet ready to eat--remind me of what will come. Similarly, because I know that Christ has come, comes now, and will come again, I strive to reorient my life according to that arrival. For this reason I went to grad school and spent six years learning to lead others toward the love of wisdom, rather than plunging into a more lucrative profession.

* I use language that sets my joy apart from the world's happiness. This one is hard, much more than a reluctance to curse or swear. It is grace, seasoned with salt. Paradox instead of proposition. Stories that speak otherwise. Handwritten letters. I long for the day when creation ceases to groan and begins to sing. I long for the day when language doesn't falter before truth, but until that day, I can try to make language dance even as it stumbles.

* I consider my joy to belong to all who are called by Christ's name, and I remember that we are waiting together. If my brothers and sisters cannot share my joy, or question it, then I must mistrust it, too, and call it happy-pretty-something-or-other, but not joy, not Advent, not Christmas. I ask, "How might my wealth, my tranquility, my strength add stones to the roads in the Kingdom of God?"  Whether I wait for a train, a friend, or a messiah, good company takes so much sorrow out of the delay.

In many ways, my life right now is like the third Sunday of Advent. After years of wondering if I would ever finish my PhD, my life has turned into a tall rose-colored candle. I recognize that I do not, cannot, yet enjoy all the things I am waiting for in this world or the world to come. Nevertheless, this Advent balances so much of the agonized, uncertain waiting I experienced last year. Waiting is hard, and darkness often threatens to snuff out the pink candle along with all good lights. But for those of us who have new words for "joy," there is no fear that the dark will overwhelm our hope. The darkness has never comprehended the light, and for this reason, above all, we wait with joy.

Waiting with joy. 

Most of us have experienced difficult times of waiting, but can you think of a time you were able to wait for something with joy? 


  1. This might be my favorite of all your posts!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! It has been one of my favorites to write.