The Christmas decorations will slowly be coming down this week, but Father reminded me at the Mass celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord that the route is still before us. We are still seeking Christ. He also talked about how when you receive a card with the photo of the Magi, you always see them looking up at a star shining in the night. The dark surrounds them. This is because we often have to walk through darkness to find Christ.
“Saint John of the Cross was right,” Father went on to say. “A lot of us will have to go through the dark night of the soul to get to Jesus. And sometimes we’re not the ones finding Jesus at all. He finds us.“
On Christmas Eve Mass, I was unexpectedly unmoved this year. I usually tear up at Christmas Mass. The simple beauty of the crèche, the gathering of loved ones, the traditional hymns, the flushed excitement of children, the hope Jesus gave us all… the Nativity of the Lord is a tear-inspiring occasion. (Truthfully, sap that I am, I frequently tear up at regular, ordinary time Mass, too.) But this year I sat quietly stoic with my hands folded in my lap and tried not to think about the perpetual tickle in my scratchy throat. I blamed my impassive mood on the fact that some family circumstances forced me to attend Midnight Mass alone (I don’t want to ever do that again), and that my cold was wearing me down and I was unable to sing along with the choir. I knew I was supposed to be joyful, but I felt a little sad. My lackluster mood didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t change it. (Or so I thought.)
But yesterday, as I blinked back the tears during Father’s homily (I was back to crying in church!), it hit me that in many ways the past 12 months or so have been a dark night for me and that even though I kept on trudging along, trying to follow the light, I was shrouded in darkness. There was hope to be sure, but my nighttime was still around even on Christmas Day.
Yet, ever since Sunday – and I can’t fully explain why (it could not have only been Father’s wisdom) – I have felt joy, not warm and fuzzy happiness, not even hope, but crisp, sparkling, pure joy. It feels as if I’m no longer just following the star. I’m standing before Christ. I’ve found him (at least for now), or maybe He found me, as Father said, exactly where He knew He needed me to be to accept Him and His great love for me – a love that, no matter how lukewarm my feelings for Him may be, doesn’t come in spurts but is there, always there, whether I recognize it or not.
In Mary Karr’s most recent memoir Lit, in which she gets drunk, gets sober, and gets God (or He gets her), she writes, “[It is] joy, [I feel], which I’ve never known before, only pleasure or excitement. Joy is a different thing, because its focus exists outside the self – delight in something external, not satisfaction in some inner craving.”
When we were walking home from Mass on Sunday, Madeline stumbled and fell to the ground hard. Her knees and hands were skinned. She put on a brave face and dusted herself off, and we kept walking. “Are you sure okay?” I asked, noticing she was slightly favoring her light leg.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said, “but don’t you think what’s supposed to be a ‘joy’ time of year has been more an ‘injury’ time of year?”
I chuckled and knew what she was getting at. I was limping, too, after having recently sprained my ankle doing nothing more than playing with my kids and dog in the yard. Mary Elizabeth took a scary tumble down our wooden steps and ended up with a busted lip. We were all okay – just a little bruised – but we had suffered our share of injuries.
Just leaving the church minutes earlier, my ankle had felt like it was almost back to 100 percent when my foot hit an uneven spot in the pavement and I felt a sharp twinge. And, yet, I kept walking and the joy that had washed over me at Mass stayed with me.
I’ve spent and you could say squandered a big chunk of my life futilely searching for the wrong kind of joy. Like a leaf falling from a tree I was usually at the whim of the wind. I’d go where it took me. I’d be drifting along, happy and content, when something would sweep me away and drive me to the hard ground. Maybe it was a careless comment about, let’s say, my weight that would make me tailspin out of control. (When I was little, I remember someone I greatly cared about and admired commenting on my pre-pubescent and slightly chubby figure – not in a good way – and suggesting I probably shouldn’t have any cookies after dinner; I was devastated and allowed this remark to eat away at me for years and years.) Or maybe someone gave me positive feedback about something I had accomplished (perhaps something I’d written or how I’d performed as a mother), which set me soaring into the blue sky only to crash back down again when no one was saying anything nice. But whether I was flying or nosediving, I was just drifting; my every move (and every mood) was dependent on the winds of life.
That’s no way to live. Karr was right: Real joy is not about pleasant feelings. Joy is not dependent on external factors or satisfying cravings for affirmation, food, chic shoes, good health, an end to money troubles. Joy is not about me or what happens to me at all but what is within me. Joy can be found where Christ dwells. Joy can be found in me when life is easy and when life is hard because Jesus is within me during the good and bad times, easy and hard times. He is with me all of the time.
Reflecting on the past year I recognize plenty of moments of happiness and days when I was aware of the blessings that surround me even in the midst of life’s messiness. But far too often happiness was elusive for me because things that were out of my control kept happening, because I too easily let others, situations, things people said (or didn’t say), or self-defeating thoughts take my good feelings away.
As Madeline and I continued to walk home warmed by the sunshine on the brisk day, our joy superseded our injuries. And I remember thinking, “Joy can always supersede our pain.” Because real, everlasting joy comes from Him, and He’s not going anywhere. Mean-spirited people can chip away at your happiness. So can everyday stress. So can a toddler pooping on the floor or a sprained ankle. So can a cancer diagnosis, a death in the family, a miscarriage. Life, no matter how hard we try to inoculate ourselves against unhappiness, will sometimes take good things and good feelings away. But nothing, nothing can take Him away.
My thoughts, my epiphany suitable on the day we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord, are nothing new. I’ve known them all along, I suppose, but they, I admit, have sometimes felt like nothing more than empty platitudes, cozy Hallmark-like tag lines to give me a temporary pick-me-up. But not right now. Maybe tomorrow I’ll forget this lesson when I trip and sprain the other ankle. Maybe I’ll lose my joy because I’ve lost Him. This is my human condition to be blinded again and again. But it is God’s condition to keep making me see.
I don’t know what’s in store for me in the next hour, tomorrow, next week, next month, or in 2011 or beyond. There may be injury, pain, loss. There may be unexpected and undeserved gifts. There may be a new baby to help make up for the baby I lost. There may be reasons to cry or to laugh. There may be two steps forward in my eating disorder healing or two steps back. I don’t have much control over how the winds will blow, but it doesn’t really matter. If I remain grounded in the truth, the truth that no one or no situation – good or bad – can take me away from the Truth of Christ, the truth that He is more than a pretty light in the sky to pursue when I want to feel better, the truth that joy doesn’t come from the outside but from within, from Him, then I don’t have to be that yielding leaf anymore. I can possess joy in my world whether joyful things are happening to me and those I love or not.
God found me long before I even started looking for Him. He was there. He’s here now. And He is my joy. This is the epiphany I want to hold onto for this year and for forever.
Emmanuel. God with us. Now and always. May this be your joy, too.
Happy, happy New Year!
(Still working on my word for the year; joy was a strong contender, but it didn’t feel like the perfect fit. I’ll find it eventually.)