Painful Joy

[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stan Helton is a scholar of obscure topics, lover of God’s people, committed husband and father, but mostly just a child of God.]

When invited to contribute an Advent piece for this year’s blog, I chose to write on joy.  Today, as I write this piece, I wished I had chosen otherwise.

rejoiceToday was the Third Sunday in Advent but the first Sunday following the tragedy in Newtown. Today’s lectionary readings actually sickened me.. The first reading for today was Philippians 4:4-7 which begins “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

Seriously, rejoice on a day like today?! This is simply wrong! These were fanciful, even farcical, words on ordinary days. But today was not ordinary.

Instead that hard little story Matthew tells about paranoid King Herod and his massacre of the children of Bethlehem now had a context outside the usual whimsical Christmas story.


A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

And so today, in the midst of anguish and Advent, joy felt far away. Still I stayed with the Philippians text even though its discordant sound. It was just as wrong as the story of the children in Bethlehem—a story left on the cutting room floor of most nativity plays.

FAMILY MEMBERS GRIEVE NEAR SITE OF CONNECTICUT SCHOOL TRAGEDYSo I complained to God: Lord, I’m so angry! I want to hurt someone. Someone should pay for this evil. To which the Lord responded through this jarring text, Let your gentleness be known to everyone. And I thought of those who gave their lives to protect the helpless and all those who would be present to those in deep need in the days to come.

Lord, there is no place for joy today; He answered again through Paul’s words: The Lord is near. Though I wanted to disagree, I knew this to be true. The Lord is near; even when things go awry. So whether in ancient Bethlehem or in modern Newtown, the Lord continues to come near. While He does not always deliver us in the here and now from the awful realities of our world, He promises to be present; and more importantly, God will somehow make this right.

Oh, God! I’m scared. How can we live in such a terrible place and how will those parents make sense of their unspeakable loss? Will they ever recover their joy? It seems sacrilegious to suggest that they even should. To my lament came these words: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Then, I prayed, Lord, have mercy on us.

And so I prayed, and cried, and prayed again. Rachel, as it were, was again inconsolable. Some supernatural power would have to intervene to restore joy. Then came the final words: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Then I knew that joy, real joy, could only be the results of God’s work in our lives. And so, in keeping with Advent, I wait on God to restore our joy.



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