Each Christmas season, I make a ritual of watching the Frank Capra Christmas Classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Though I know there is a strong cult following for the movie starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, there is an equally large group of those who furrow their brow in disgust and flip the channel to Miracle on 34th Street. Though they don’t often name it, I’m guessing that people do not like watching two plus hours of greed-fueled tragedy, depression and suicidal ideation to get to the simple, and utterly joyful, celebration of the lives of seemingly unremarkable people and the generous communities that surround them.
But, I think, that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is actually the perfect celebration of the Advent and Christmas season. Advent is supposed to create space for unpleasantness — the feelings that creep in and around joy like garden weeds. Just ask any new parent who has randomly wakened in the middle of the night to check if their sleeping infant is breathing. Or just ask a celebrating college graduate the tension-filled question, “So what’s next?” Or the fear of failure that accompanies someone when they finally begin their dream job.
Here’s the thing: In Advent, Christians meditate on joy on the third Sunday of Advent — ten days to two weeks prior to the actual Christmas celebration. In the Northern Hemisphere, this coincides with some of the longest, darkest days of winter. On that dark third Sunday of Advent, Christians light two purple and one pink candle, symbolizing joy. This practice reminds us that joy is not reserved for the big celebrations, the all-consuming blissful moments, or even for sunny weather — but for the everyday joys that emerge against a backdrop of the mundane, the difficult, the unpleasant, even the painful.
This ritual reminds us that we grow joy in the soil of depression, sadness and grief. As the Psalmist writes in Chapter 126, verses 5-6: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” (New Revised Standard Version https://nrsvbibles.org/index.php/licensing/)
Joy emerges most dramatically when we experience the full range of life’s feelings. We often experience the greatest joys, the most extraordinary kindnesses, the most exquisite grace, when our lives are at the most bleak, despairing, and painful. Joy is a bright light that can shine everyday, not only during the most ecstatic celebrations.