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Anticipating joy is itself a joy.
Ruth Bell Graham
I’ll never forget the day after our honeymoon. For 8 long months I had been planning my wedding and honeymoon, and finally it had arrived. The wedding day came and went in a flurry, and before I knew it we were on a plane to the Caribbean. We soaked in the warm sun and beautiful scenery, relaxed, celebrated, and rested.
It was exactly what I hoped it would be. It was perfect.
Then we came home, and that’s when the terrible reality hit me:
That was it.
I’d spent my entire life dreaming about my wedding day–my dress, my hair, the flowers, the reception–and now it was just…over.
And you know what? I felt totally deflated. I was even a little sad. Ike and I lived on the same street as a bridal shop, and I remember willing myself to ignore the window displays whenever I drove by them. Never again would I try on magnificent white dresses, and that reality was oh so bittersweet.
In a lot of ways, I feel the same post-event letdown on Christmas night. I don’t know about you, but after all the presents have been opened and the day is drawing to a close, I feel kind of blah. After all that build up, the season is just over. And then it’s a whole year until the celebration starts anew.
For most of my life, my favorite part about the Christmas season has been the anticipation. I love the planning and the preparation. I love singing carols about silent nights, lowly mangers, frightened shepherds, and angels on high. I love the Advent readings, anticipating the promise and hope we have in a fragile babe.
I also enjoy the “less spiritual” aspects of Christmas, like decorating our home, making Christmas treats, and watching Christmas Vacation (it’s not Christmas without cousin Eddie, you know?).
For me, the Christmas season is almost magical. It’s chock full of hope and joy. My heart skips through each day of December, basking in the wonder of the season.
That’s why Christmas Day is a bit of a letdown. The season is over, and it won’t return for another year.
A part of me feels sheepish–almost childish–about admitting my disappointment. But another part of my suspects this is exactly what God intended. After all, the Old Testament is full of prophecies about the coming Christ-child. It’s as if God was priming us for joy, building the anticipation to a fever pitch as the broken world waited on the promised One.
That’s why I am convinced that the Advent season is meant to be a season of joy. It is a season of waiting, yes, but a season of happiness too.
Unfortunately, that joy is becoming more elusive.
For some, the Christmas season can be a painful time. Depending on the year or season of life, it highlights the absence of loved ones, the brokenness of families, or the ache of loneliness. For those individuals, the joy of Advent is understandably elusive.
However joy is elusive for a second reason, one that is within our control. For many of us, the sheer busyness of the season keeps joy just out of reach. We don’t have time to stop and feel the anticipation. There is no margin of room to be still, to be quiet, to reflect, to hope.
Over the past few years I’ve found myself joining the ranks of this second group. As I do, I forfeit the joy that comes with Advent. Rather than delight in the anticipation, I pack my schedule so crammed full that Christmas feels more like an unstoppable train that I can’t get off.
The funny thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is not a hostage situation. It’s not as though Christmas takes me captive without my choice. I can say no. I can make space for intentionality and reflection. I can.
But too often I don’t. Over the years I have replaced the simply joy of anticipating Jesus’ birth with going to parties, sending out countless cards, and assembling a Pinterest-worthy home.
It’s not that any of these activities are wrong, but there’s not always room left for Christ. There’s not always room for the joy of anticipating joy.
In Philippians 4:4 the Apostle Paul commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Paul spoke these words while under house arrest, which reminds us that joy is a discipline. It is something we must be intentional about. Joy does not simply happen to us. We must fight for it.
It also tells us that joy, and the anticipation of joy, is not merely an Advent discipline. It is a Christian discipline. Yes, we cultivate the habit of joy throughout the season of Advent as we remember the coming of Jesus. But the entire Christian life is lived in anticipation of a future joy, the anticipation of our happy homecoming to be with the Lord.
The opening quote by Ruth Bell Graham was about just that. She anticipated the joy of Heaven, and the knowledge of that future joy overflowed into the present. What a gift, that God designed joy that way. We can taste pieces of it here and now, before we ever taste it fully.
But will we? Will we reclaim the joy of Advent, the joy of anticipating joy? Or will we continue to forfeit the gift, year after year after year?
Christmas is still 2 weeks away, so it’s not too late! We can forfeit joy, or we can fight for it. I hope you will join me in fighting for joy this Advent season, remembering that one day, there will be no more post-anything letdown. There will only be joy.