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About this time every year growing up, I was locked into a daily battle with my three younger siblings. Who was going to make it to the advent calendar first?
It was our own mini track meet every month of December, speeding our way through the front door, around the kitchen table, and finally snaking our way along the dining room to this worn and tired homemade calendar hung on the wall. There was such anticipation with each new day -- what an honor it was to be the one to reveal that day’s prize.
My mom made it herself from red and green felt when she was a teenager, and it’s been hung on our family’s wall every year since then.
It has a large white Christmas tree outline on the top, with 24 pockets underneath, pinned closed with ornaments that we hang above each new day. And it’s one of my favorite traditions in this holiday season.
Her handwritten numbers on each pocket, the care she clearly took with cutting out each ornament hidden inside of them, and the yearly maintenance she does, stringing new thread through the pieces and replacing the pins that have been lost to time.
Over the years, I’ve gotten plenty of store-bought Advent calendars -- nowadays lots of them have chocolate, or candy, or even whisky, in each pocket. I have no comment about that whisky calendar...
But that simple, worn, and handmade calendar is still the one thing that brings me such joy each December. Growing up, without realizing it, that advent calendar became for me a daily practice of joy.
The anticipation of which ornament would appear in that day’s pocket was palpable -- and seeing our felt Christmas tree fill out with tiny ornaments as we got closer to the 25th was a visual blooming of that joy.
On the 24th, we attempted to share the honor of pinning the yellow star to the top of the tree. Attempted because four kids under the age of 10 attempting to share anything is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else.
Maybe some of you have an end of year tradition that gives you the chance to practice daily or weekly joy. As we learned in the story for all ages earlier this morning, there are many cultural and religious traditions that honor and celebrate this time of the year. Including the season of Advent, in the Christian tradition, which is a period each year that some of us mark with calendars and lighting candles and lots of greenery.
It’s easy to know how to decorate for the Advent season, but what are its roots? What makes it relevant for us as Unitarian Universalists?
Advent comes from the latin root word of Adventus -- meaning “arrival.”
It spans the four weeks leading up to Christmas day, and in houses of worship and in some homes, it is often marked with a rounded wreath with four purple candles inside it. A new candle is lit with each new Sunday we get closer to the 25th.
Advent is noted as a time of darkness, of contemplation, of anticipation. The darkness comes from the changing of our seasons -- with the land lying fallow and the sun providing some of the fewest hours of light we’ll experience all year.
The contemplation comes with this idle period we experience -- we take stock of the year now behind us, and the year that lay ahead of us. What sorts of things do we want to leave behind? What do we want to cultivate anew? What has helped us feel spiritually grounded? What do we need to replenish our well? When did our spiritual well feel full to the brim?
And then, the anticipation comes with the knowledge of what’s to come at the end of this month. And that anticipation culminates in joy.
For those of us who participate in Advent and for those of us who don’t, I think we can glean from it an important truth: Joy is a spiritual practice.
Joy is a celebration, it’s an affirmation, it’s a triumph. But it’s also impermanent. Joy reminds us that we can have moments of feeling fully whole -- fully alive. It’s a human impulse that grounds us in our bodies, in singular moments, in the transcendent.
In our reading today, Walt Whitman encourages us toward practicing joy.
“O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on! To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.”
What does your poem of new joys say? What have you written there? What have you scratched out? What remains unwritten? What do you dare not put in ink? What do you triumphantly write in all capital letters?
It’s so easy to get pulled in one direction or the other in life -- sometimes we find ourselves slogging our way down a path that others have laid out for us. It’s not the path -- not that swelling ship -- that will lead us to a life full of joys.
These days, there is so much good and positive discussion about self care and self restoration. Most often we are encouraged to find calm, to find quiet, to find relaxation. Those are undoubtedly important aspects of self restoration -- of refilling your well.
But what about joy? Taking time to intentionally have joyful moments and experiences might just be as important as finding moments of quiet.
And that’s sometimes the thing that keeps us from reaching out and touching joy: It’s fleeting. It’s not exactly always available on demand or in abundance.
And sometimes life feels anything but joyful. As Rev. Tera beautifully illustrated last week, this is not always a joyful season, and we are not always in joyful seasons of life. And we have to honor that.
And even more than that, some of us come from religious or familial backgrounds that emphasized the necessity of suffering, of keeping joy at bay. Sometimes we shove our joy out of the picture. We believe we’re not worthy.
But I learned an important lesson from a teacher just last week: Mercy is a cyclical thing -- if we can’t offer mercy to ourselves, we can’t offer it to others -- at least not with the fullness or depth that we might be able to otherwise. How might you show yourself mercy this season? And how might that lead us to fully embracing joy?
To let it envelop us as a gift from the spirit, a gift from the universe, a gift from ourselves -- one that we’ve kept hidden away for far too long.
And this is where Advent might offer us a powerful lesson: Joy takes time, it takes practice, and it takes repetition. We must repeat the sounding joy.
“Joy to the World
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.”
Those lyrics, written 300 years ago this year, offer us an opening this morning:
What might happen if we choose joy, we cultivate joy, we grow joy, we share joy? How might we grow individually and as a community if we made joy central to our spiritual practice?
As I opened the 8th pocket on my Advent calendar this morning before coming to church, I took a moment to give thanks for this moment of anticipation, this tiny moment of joy in my day. That calendar is a simple reminder to practice joy every single day. I repeat the sounding joy each time I pin a new ornament on that felt tree.
You see, our joys need not only be large, public, magical moments, although those most certainly can be. They can also be our everyday joys, the simple joys.
What gives you joy? Where and how does it spring to life for you? What makes your heart sing? What fills up your well? Take a moment to breathe and focus on those questions.
And as we continue to focus on those joyful thoughts, I want us to turn to engage joy more directly, together as a community.
Light is a central theme of this season -- in so many cultural and religious traditions, as we learned in the stories we read in our time for all ages, light is used to symbolize our joys.
Lighting candles can create for us that spark of joy -- they illuminate a mosaic of light that comes together as a symbol of something even more vibrant, beautiful, and joyful than we could have created on our own.
So I now invite you to come forward to light a candle -- keeping in mind those people, those places, those experiences -- that illuminate joy for you. Come, let us practice joy together.