(See John chapter 16)
God, some of us are bombarded with messages
That tell us we should never feel sad -
We should ignore pain or cover it up.
Some of us are bombarded with messages
That tell us we should only feel sad -
We should give up hope altogether.
We are grateful for your balanced view,
and for your example
Of acknowledging people’s pain and darkness
And companionably entering into it with them;
Of letting death think it won for a hot minute
Then BOOM: resurrection!
Grief turned to joy.
Weeping turned to laughter.
Pain and travail: a child is born.
Help us to live as faithful Grievers
Of whatever anguish we encounter or experience,
Who are willing to walk among despair.
And help us to live as faithful Hopers:
Courageous People of Good Cheer
Who are certain of our impending joy.
Being of good cheer is a thing that Jesus says we should do, or be, as it were. At least, the King James translates it that way. Other more contemporary translations give the line as “take courage” or “take heart.” I’m naturally a suspicious, somewhat cynical, glass-half-empty sort of individual; being of good cheer is not really my thing. But this line comes at the tail end of a chapter, John 16, in which Jesus is being really honest with his followers about what it’s going to be like for them to live in the tension of the time between when he leaves and when he comes again. The tension of waiting. The tension, it occurs to me, of Advent.
See, I’m about done with Christmas Cheer by now. Kids are dying in Syria and Yemen, and Standing Rock still isn’t over, and bombings and cancer and melting polar ice caps, and people around the world are grieving a million different losses and hurts. And if you ask me to ignore that and just sing songs and spread cheer I’m probably going to tune you out. I don’t see Jesus ignoring darkness or pain, and I pray we can have the courage to follow his example, roll up our sleeves and be about healing and peacemaking.
The part of the chapter that’s most hopeful to my cynical self is this: Jesus doesn’t sugar coat anything. He doesn’t say, “oh things are going to come up roses for the next few dozen centuries while I’m doing my thing in heaven.” He doesn’t omit the fact that we will experience grief and loss; “you will grieve,” he says baldly, “but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20).*
Instead he gives us this invitation to enter into the darkness of grief and pain - an act in itself of hope and faith - so that we may learn to experience joy. It is both permission and a paradox: this becomes that, but only if we stop faking the one and start doing the other. It’s a place we get to lend our weight to help “bend the arc of justice” as MLK famously said, by becoming willing to see and feel the pain around us, and to work transform it in light of Christ’s example.
In this world you’ll have trouble, says Jesus; but be of good cheer because I have overcome the world and you are free to live as though I have even though the evidence you see around you contradicts me. Part of the tension of Advent is this: how to both grieve authentically and be of good cheer. Always the tension, always the paradox of faith, the waiting that stretches our boundaries. I like Christmas Cheer better this way, with salt alongside light, with real-life darkness to illuminate.
*This passage is just another one of the myriad reasons I think grieving is important work, not to be shirked.