The Apostle Paul proclaims to the church in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5, NIV). Like with most Scripture passages taken out of both history and context, it’s easy to make these three lines a mantra for the Advent season, particularly when we turn to joy. We can so easily tell one another as part of our dutiful Christian mandate that a steadfast smile is to remain on our faces, especially during the holidays. For, mustn’t we rejoice in the “reason for the season?”
Mirriam-Webster defines ‘rejoice’ in the following manner:
- Rejoice: to express joy through celebration; “to feel or show great joy or delight.”1
Culture tells us that happiness spontaneously bolts through the doors once Christmastime is upon us. Evergreen garlands, holly berries, twinkling lights, Christmas carols adorning every public space – each contribute to the mounting sense of gladness we experience this time of year. But, when we consider the real life context in which Paul is announcing our commitment to joy as imitators of Jesus, we quickly see that the act of joy was both countercultural and defiant of the dominant culture around the early Christians in that part of Macedonia.
A Uniquely Philippian Joy
How does the Apostle Paul’s context inform the church in Philippi’s understanding of joy? Two points stand point in particular:
Firstly, the Apostle Paul was not writing from the comforts of home; he was writing as an incarcerated and religiously persecuted person. Paul wrote as a faith leader who was in need of great help, particularly financially, and was without much means. He wrote to a community he addressed as “beloved” (Philippians 2:12, 4:1, NIV), or agapētos in Greek, a term he often reserved for those closest to him. The affectionate yearning Paul has for his beloved community amidst extreme uncertainty could have easily crushed any one of us to despair. His was a present life of suffering, with an unknown future to come.
Secondly, the disciples of Jesus in Philippi, a colonial military outpost of the Roman Empire along a major East-West trade route of that time, were also experiencing persecution (Philippians 1:27-39; 4:4) amidst a syncretist culture, causing a real threat of disunity among their community (Philippians 4:2-5). The church itself began with a motley crew: A transplant businesswoman and her household, a young enslaved woman exploited by her owners, and a Roman jailer and his household; all with not much prominence in the eyes of their neighbors. A community that greatly defied the norm of gender, culture, and the socio-economic status of its day before it was popular (nor remotely safe) to do so.
And yet, Paul doubly emphasizes to both himself and the church, to rejoice! In the middle of their individual and collective dire circumstances, he adamantly declares that Christ-followers must choose joy.
Why? What is it about joy that marks us as people of God?
Joy is a both an intentional countercultural expression and act that followers of Jesus actively participate in, choosing to engage with out of their own agency. As Henri Nouwen so aptly puts it, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”2 Participating in the defiant and countercultural act of joy is actively joining with God in his redemptive work through incarnation. The Apostle Paul vehemently declares joy because it immediately points to the nearness of God. Rejoicing ushers in for everyone around us the very proximity of Jesus – God with us, Emmanuel. Joy anticipates the assuredness in God’s promise to us that he is alongside us; his beauty, truth, justice, peace, righteousness, wholeness, faithfulness, and sincere love dwell within us mysteriously. This açt of holding that anticipation is what allows joy to live in the middle of both deep gladness and profound suffering. We are called as Christ followers to express joy, which points the world around us to the incarnation of God within us.
Defiant Joy is a Countercultural Act of Resistance
Kawaiaha`o Church in Honolulu, Hawaii sits in my neighborhood. Considered the “Westminster Abbey of the Pacific,” first built in 1842, the “Great Stone Church” is made of 14,000 coral slabs taken from the Pacific Ocean. It once boasted as the Hawaiian monarchy’s church. But the joy that exudes from this National Historic Landmark doesn’t reside in the building; rather, it is expressed through the people who continue to be Kawaiaha`o Church. Each week, the service is conducted in both Hawaiian and English. Both ukulele and the organ are played, and hula is danced as a showcase of worship. Why? Because the people of Kawaiaha`o Church worship with joy as a countercultural and defiant act of resistance against a European (and American) colonial culture that once stripped away the Hawaiian language, music, and dance from its indigenous peoples. It’s their act to participate in God’s redemptive work through incarnation; their act to participate in honoring the truth that people of Hawaiian heritage can also worship the one true God.
Each week, they incarnate what it looks like to be a worshipper of God in their own language, through their own music, and with their own cultural expressions. Joy amidst the recent history of colonialism. Joy amidst the legacy of oppression. Joy amidst the near erasure of their identity and culture. When I attend Kawaiaha`o Church, I shed tears of joy. I participate in the expression of joy mingled with sorrow, and I experience the truth that Jesus is, and was, and will continue to be with the people of Hawaii. Their expressed joy is not only countercultural and defiant – it is an intentional display of the nearness of God in their midst.
The people of Kawaiaha`o Church worship with joy as a countercultural and defiant act of resistance against a European colonialist culture that stripped away the Hawaiian language, music, and dance from its indigenous peoples...… Click To Tweet
... It’s their act to participate in God’s redemptive work through incarnation; their act to participate in honoring the truth that people of Hawaiian heritage can also worship the one true God. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Joy is Both Personal and Communal
How do we, then, adhere to Paul’s proclamation? What does it look like to participate in joy in real life? What does it mean for the church to be an expression of joy for the sake of the community around them?
As reknowned theologian William James Jennings writes, “I look at joy as an act of resistance against despair and its forces…Joy in regard is a work, that can become a state, that can become a way of life.”3 Joy is firstly a choice to participate in good work. The sustained practice and rhythm of the good work of joy leads to a kind of sanctification in our minds and hearts. Secondly, this practice welcomes a normalcy that proclaims to the world around us that participating in joy is the baseline on this side of new creation. Participating in this kind of joy has both a personal and communal element to it. Personal participation requires actively practicing gratitude while communal participation requires actively celebrating and lamenting with others.
Dr. Christine Pohl speaks to this personal participation in gratitude as she writes, “When our lives are shaped by gratitude, we’re more likely to notice the goodness and beautify in everyday things. We are content; we feel blessed and are eager to confer blessing.”4 She continues:
Ingratitude toward God and human beings is a terrible thing, but it often comes dressed in other clothing – restlessness, concerns about self-fulfillment or entitlement, and irritation at not being properly valued or recognized. Once a ‘culture of complaint’ is established, it spreads through communities and affects everyone.5
When we are persons who commit to the work of gratitude, we tether ourselves to both a deeper sense of contentedness and appreciation for God and for others. Gratitude tethers us to joy. Sociologist Brené Brown, in her extensive research on joy, has determined that difference between happiness and joy is “the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”6 Again, a personal commitment to practicing gratitude connects us to rejoicing in the Lord, which reminds us that the Lord is near. Whether it’s to engage in practices of journaling gratitude, offering personal thanks to those around us consistently, sharing notes of gratefulness with others, or participating in the Prayer of Examen,7 these rhythms require something of us.
When we are persons who commit to the work of gratitude, we tether ourselves to both a deeper sense of contentedness and appreciation for God and for others. Gratitude tethers us to joy. Click To Tweet
How does the communal participation of celebrating and lamenting others collectively also connect us to joy? When a community intentionally practices both celebration and lament, it rejoices in the nearness of God for the whole community. Incarnational joy, a joy that is present with and embodied by the church, lives within both celebration and lamentation. As Dr. Soong-Chan Rah writes,
Lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices…To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.8
Rejoicing in the Lord that ushers in the nearness of Christ means to communally exercise both the theology of the resurrection and the theology of the crucifixion; both celebration and lament. Communal joy recognizes and admits to the injustice of the world, sitting with and among the broken ones as we confess our own brokenness. Communal joy shouts out loud, “Rejoice! Jesus is near!” Jesus is near even in your brokenness, in my brokenness, and in our shared brokenness. Participating in communal joy helps to clearly point to the hope for our weariness. We cannot erase or disguise the injustices in our communities; rather, the reality of the world as it really is challenges us to work towards naming and unmasking injustice in a continual move towards justice, truth, beauty, and wholeness through self-giving love together.
Joy invites us to become people who mimic the footsteps of the incarnation.
Eun Strawser is the co-vocational lead pastor of Ma Ke Alo o (which means “Presence” in Hawaiian), with missional communities multiplying in Honolulu, HI, in addition to being a community physician and an executive leader at the V3 Movement. She is also the author of Centering Discipleship: A Pathway for Multiplying Spectators into Mature Disciples (IVP, 2023). Prior to transitioning to Hawaii, she served as adjunct professor of medicine at the Philadelphia College of Medicine and African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (after finishing her Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Dar es Salaam). She and Steve have three seriously amazing children.
Communal joy recognizes and admits to the injustice of the world, sitting with and among the broken ones as we confess our own brokenness. Communal joy shouts out loud, 'Rejoice! Jesus is near!' Click To Tweet
1 The definition of rejoice used here is was taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online, found here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rejoice.
2 Nouwen, Henri J. M., “Joy” Henri Nouwen Society, June 1, 2023, https://henrinouwen.org/meditations/joy.
3 Jennings, William James, “Joy and the Act of Resistance Against Despair” Yale Center for Faith & Culture, February 28, 2021, https://faith.yale.edu/media/joy-and-the-act-of-resistance-against-despair.
4 Pohl, Christine, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, Erdmans, Grand Rapids, MI; 2011; Kindle Location 429 of 4783.
5 Ibid., Kindle Location 354 of 4783.
6 Brown, Brené, “Gratitude is the Key to a Joyful Life,” Omega, 2023, https://www.eomega.org/article/gratitude-is-the-key-to-a-joyful-life.
7 There are many quality resources for St. Ignatius’ practice of gratitude that can be found online, including https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/.
8 Rah, Soong Chan, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, InterVarsity Press, Westmont, IL, 2015, Kindle Page 22 of 224.