“Joy in January” might seem a contradiction in terms. For many of us, January is a cold, wet, sloppy month. For Christians, there’s the natural letdown that happens after Christmas, after the weeks of shopping, baking, celebrating, and anticipating Christmas Day. Christians acknowledge, during January, the visit of the magi and the infant Jesus being circumcised; then we jump years ahead to his baptism by his cousin John. By the end of January, the manger is empty, the baby all grown up, and the rest of us must get on with our lives.
On New Year’s Day of this year, I experienced an odd sort of panic attack, and it was tangled up with sudden grief. I was watching relatives get in their car and drive away, having had dinner at my home. They don’t live far from me, and I see them often, but their driving away felt like the end of something. Then the tears started, along with a horrible sense of breathlessness. Hours later, I concluded that, for some reason, this year I felt more acutely the loved ones who are no longer here, the celebrations long past, and the physical homes no longer standing. I felt acutely my own age and the fact that more of my life is behind me than in front of me.
I was not feeling joy on the first day of January.
Joy connects with various other emotions, and one of them is hope. And we naturally connect hope with the future. Therefore, if we look ahead and see nothing—as I did on New Year’s Day—we find that hope has left us. Even if you don’t have a panic attack, a few days of catching up on world news can suck up anyone’s breath and hope, as we hear of wars, famine, natural disasters, political conflicts, struggling economies, and so forth.
For people of faith, there must be a better way to joy. For the person who believes in God of the Universe, who creates us and who is the great Lover of our souls, joy does not rely on a vision of the future. Joy roots itself in this moment, this day, and the ever-present reality of Divine presence and energy infusing all of creation, including you and me right now.
Joy does not require a sweet baby who never grows up.
The New Testament Christians looked forward to a future with Christ. They knew that other aspects of their future were quite grim. In their time, people didn’t live very long, and the infant mortality rate was high. They were well-acquainted with war and hunger and violence and oppression. Some of them felt the constant shadow of persecution, torture, and death, because they were followers of Jesus. Some of them chose not to get married or have families because the times were so volatile. They did not find joy by looking ahead to a nice retirement or a creative remodeling of the home or travels to other countries for interesting experiences. They experienced joy because they experienced God in their midst.
So, really, joy should be as accessible in January as in May, for those of us who believe we are God’s beloved. When I realize that my joy has evaporated, it’s an indication that I have sought joy in the wrong way, the wrong place. Joy does not lie ahead of me but is available to me now. Joy does not wait for a better time and more money and a nicer home.
Joy does not require a sweet baby who never grows up. Joy grows with the child to adulthood, and joy energizes that person’s mission, and joy sustains him all the way to his brutal Death and burial. Then, joy truly sings at the Resurrection.
We have delighted in the Baby Jesus, sung songs to him, and celebrated his birth. May we continue with him through all the days ahead, through the growing-up days and hard-working days and times of perseverance and pain and tears and trial and grace and victory and healing and redemption. May we experience every moment as a brilliant blaze that refines our joy and makes us strong.