As we continue into advent we come to another Hebrew word inspired by the prophets—Alaz. Rejoice or exult! Or at its root, Joy.
I am always mindful this time of year of those for whom this is a hard season to rejoice. I have said before, and will say again, that the Blue Christmas service, is one of my very favorite services (Thursday December 20 at 6pm this year). It is a time to gather with sisters and brothers who know loss and grief and struggle this time of year. The service does not focus on “cheering people up,” but rather on the support of presence as we walk through our grief together.
With this backdrop this week, it might seem kind of odd that our Hebrew word is “Rejoice!” However, as I have spoken with many of you this week, I think we have come to realize that there is something more to the Hebrew than simply tinsel and holiday cheer. The prophet guiding our reflection this week is Zephaniah, and the way that he uses the word is much more complicated than simply—Cheer up!
The historical backdrop of this part of Zephaniah is likely to be during the exile (This is debated by scholars). Though parts of the book are located earlier, this part may be a later addition. So why does all that scholarly debate matter? If this is indeed post Exile, it means that the Israelites are in the midst of just about the darkest days imaginable. Zephaniah speaks at length about the “Day of the Lord,” as a day of judgment and destruction for Jerusalem and Judah, but then this piece is added later—after all of the destruction and loss.
I think part of the significance here is about the nature of “joy” versus “Cheer” or “happiness.” I think joy is a much deeper reality that is connected to our very being, whereas happiness is a fleeting emotional state. We are happy about a good day, we are joyful about our deep and continued relationship to God. Whereas there are many moments where happiness is washed away by grief or pain, Joy is something bigger that is not so easily swept aside.
In some ways, joy becomes that deeper sense of the world that is born out of hope, not just momentary good news. Joy is the realization that whatever darkness we may be wandering through, it is not permanent, and we don’t ever truly wander alone (though at times it may feel like it).
All this is to say that the biblical concept of joy to which Zephaniah refers is something deeper than that obnoxious friend who just tells you to “cheer up” after a devastating loss. Joy is understanding that even amidst great loss or brokenness there is hope. We will struggle, and we will hurt, and we will grieve, but we never do so alone. While we walk through those dark places, we do so accompanied by the one who came into the dark world not only baring light, but the one who is the light.
So if this is a season marked by loss for you, I hope you can hear Zephaniah’s word of Joy as something more than the hollow words of “Cheer up and be happy.” This is something bigger. This is something deeper. This is about the kind of Joy that is born our of hope. This is the kind of Joy that is born out of a story of light coming into darkness. This is the kind of Joy that cannot be quenched by even the greatest pains or most devastating losses. This is the kind of Joy that we prepare ourselves for in this season of Advent.