Making room for joy

Christmas celebrates both joy and justice.

By Molly T. Marshall

I have always been an avid reader of Dr. Seuss. Long before I became a theologian, I knew that his whimsical rhyming contained great wisdom and ethical insight.

He was well ahead of his contemporaries on issues of diversity and inclusion, peace and justice, environmentalism and literacy. He introduced radical ideas so that children (and parents) could grasp them easily.

This season of preparation, with its concomitant stresses, leaves some of us feeling “Grinch-like.” A person who dreads or avoids the festivities is so named, probably akin to how the name “Scrooge” was used in an earlier day.

Seuss’ 1957 classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, has entered our lexicon of descriptors of attitude deficit, much like “bah, humbug” in the time of Dickens.

The Grinch does learn about the joy of Christmas from the citizens of Whoville, and his dawning awareness is palpable:

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, meant a little bit more.

And finally, he himself gets to carve the “roast beast.”

Joy arises out of both gift and effort. It is not without its poignancy, and as a gift of the Holy Spirit, it blends promise and discipline.

C. S. Lewis wrote of the “stabbing” feeling of joy in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.”

I think his perception that there is a piercing quality to joy is apt; great joy and great sorrow are often yoked. True exultation notes the pathos that lies close at hand. To love is to suffer, as the mystics remind us.

Surely it is so in the Christmas story. Grinding poverty, political oppression and ebbing hope for the Messiah provide the context for the coming of the newborn. Amazingly, he came as a squirming baby with an insistent cry: “take care of me.” In great humility, God has come as one of us and has entrusted the task of nurturing the Christ who seeks to be born in each of us.

Mary does not receive the word of the angel with immediate joy. “Rejoice, favored one. The Lord is with you.” Initial confusion and uncertainty in the face of this astonishing announcement is understandable, and she had to walk in the darkness of faith to believe, and for this we should call her blessed.

Mary does make room for joy, and her exquisite song of rejoicing, the Magnificat, is moving for its unbridled trust in God. It has dense theological meaning, but it is foremost the song of a “young woman shyly placing one hand upon a swelling belly to touch the miracle unfolding within her,” in the words of Wendy Wright in The Vigil.

The faithful justice of which she sings does not come without pain. Mary can hardly fathom the pain that will be hers as she lives out her vocation as God-bearer; nor can we if we seek to lean into the rhythms of this subversive hymn of praise. As Simeon later noted, the child would bring about both “rising and falling.” Both would be pierced—the Son on the cross; his mother in beholding his agony.

John Donne’s sonnet, “Annunciation,” suggests that rejoicing with Mary is a matter of giving ourselves over to what is coming:

Salvation to all that will is nigh…
Thou hast light in dark, and shut in little room
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.

We are beckoned to rejoice in this season, and it is a spiritual practice beckoned by the faithful God -- who knows joy and suffering more than we can imagine. May the One whose heart always “bears the longest part,” find us and fill us with joy.

Joy, I trust, will come as we make room for the coming Christ and the equalizing, leveling nature of God’s justice.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.