In the introduction to the collection Joy: 100 Poems, Christian Wiman explains that he’s chosen almost entirely modern poets, both for diversity of voice and experience, and to “explore what joy means for poets at this moment in history.” At this moment in history, the weight of our world’s news burdens us with despair over the violence of war, rising hate crimes, devastating natural disasters and entrenched political divides. Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.” Despair is a constant. Joy must be sought.
On this third Sunday of Advent, traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, we are called to “rejoice” even though we may not feel particularly joyful. Many of us may feel burdened with year-end deadlines to meet, holiday parties to plan and attend, cards to send, presents to buy and wrap. Those who live alone, isolated from such Christmas chaos, might feel the poignance of their loneliness. Those who make their way to a pew this Sunday are more than likely in need of an “inoculation of joy” as a way to resist despair.
I’ve often counseled people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy. Observe the majesty of a sunset. Listen to giggling children. Receive a friend’s hug. Offer a random act of kindness. Seek joy, I’ve advised, not to demean or downplay their anguish, but to help them find their way through it. Moments of joy can serve as stepping stones through the desert of despair.
The text from Isaiah describes the Israelites’ return after exile, through the wilderness to the promised land. Unlike their exodus journey, this pilgrimage is marked with rejoicing; the desert crocus blossoms beneath their feet, waters and streams quench the thirsty land, the burning sands are cooled as the people sing their way home, praising God.
The trials of the people in Isaiah 35:1-10 are not over. The enemies that surround them are real and powerful. But the message of seeking joy during suffering is meaningful no matter where we are on our journey.
At this point in a lectionary reflection or the closing of a sermon, I’d typically turn the message somewhere positive or uplifting. But real life is no fairy tale, and joy is all the more precious when it is found and embraced amidst despair.
Wiman’s collection includes the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who felt a moral responsibility to write for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He instead wrote poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable.
Even after he was arrested for writing a poem mocking Stalin, and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive, he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet still, he resisted being consumed by his despair. According to Wiman, one of the last poems he wrote before his death was, “And I Was Alive:”
And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear…
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring…
And it was all aimed at me.
Questions for reflection:
- What thoughts, feeling, images or ideas arise as you read this passage?
- Where have you witnessed or experienced joy this week?
- In what ways does joy help you resist despair?
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