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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

journal

The God Who Makes Merry

December 10, 2019



 

Empty, confetti-strewn ballrooms; abandoned balloons drifting aimlessly in silenced convention centers; food- and trash-strewn carnival grounds; empty, ticker-tape-littered streets. We have all observed them in person or on today’s many screen options: the mornings after parties, celebrations, and other such merry-makings. The photos on the covers of supermarket check-out tabloids plaster secretly-snapped, embarrassing shots and behind-the-scene portraits of the beautiful people who boldly step out in their best, determined to make the right impression, only to return make-up-smeared, broken-heeled, bow-tie-skewed, wine-dribbled, and regret-burdened.

Others of us ordinary folk often also find ourselves deeply unhappy after less dramatic, normal course-of-life merry-makings: graduation send-offs, wedding receptions, birthday or good-bye parties for those moving on to new seasons, new responsibilities, or to more promising situations or lands.

The naturalist will tell us it’s all glandular. The rise and fall of adrenalin, serotonin and endorphin levels. The “normal” let down after a “high.” What is even more befuddling is the fact that this phenomenon heightens through late fall and winter, after the joys and accomplishments of the summer, during entry into what should be the satisfying assumption of new levels of work or academic challenge, and continues on into the year’s end, despite public holidays that are joyfully labelled “Thanksgiving” and “the most wonderful time of the year,” but often are neither.

Psychologists have deemed this latter, a measurable, treatable condition—Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.)1—that usually has its onset right at the winter solstice. The absence of a certain angle and duration of the sun’s light purportedly spawns the endocrine fluctuations, leading to depression for those who so suffer. I am sure these physiological factors influenced by environment play a role; after all, we are souls, with a spirit that lives in a body, all inter-relating.

Whether in the counsellor’s office, on the therapist’s couch or between the wings of the Enneagram or Myer’s Briggs tests, we search to determine reasons for the disconnect we often experience between the celebration of our efforts and accomplishment of our hopes and dreams and, later on, the often secret, dark emotions that settle like C.S. Lewis’ “Always Winter but never Christmas” state of being.

Hard Questions on the Way to Merry-Making

The folk counsel from my own Jamaican culture regarding making oneself merry was reflected in the efforts of my maternal grand-mother, who apparently believed that all I needed to do when I would come awake homesick while visiting on the summer break was to “Shake up” myself. Similarly, in the lyrics of one of his famed tunes, world-renowned Jamaican reggae artiste Bob Marley admonishes with heavy beat, “Lively up yourself,” offering no motive other than to avoid being a “drag.” Demonstrably, volition plays a role in altering one’s own state of mind, as well as the mood of those around us. Yet such counsel tends to come across as too little too late, when one is already in the throes of depression’s onset, as the cup of joy filled too soon often drains empty instead of overflowing.

Thankfully, the in Scripture comes to the rescue on this question, as it does to every one honestly posed. Ensconced between its pages, illuminated by fellowship with the Divine Paraclete, are answers to the knotty queries plaguing our souls. God’s honest telling of His ways with man through His even-handed portrayals of the lives and struggles of those we consider heroes, as well as the lives of the villains, garners our trust as we consult its pages. We see the eventual demise of Israel’s kings. Insecurity plagues King Saul and confident, worldly-wise King Solomon alike. Cruel and evil women like Queens Jezebel and Attalia stand in contrast to honorable and brave women like Deborah, Ruth and Jael. But the poster child for this topic is unquestionably the great king David. The Psalms read like a therapy journal with no fixing or smoothing of edges. The wrestlings of his soul are all laid bare, only to turn on a dime (or a shekel), almost in bi-polar fashion, as he breaks forth in praise in what at first seems like teeth-gritting determination, but soon transforms into effervescent zeal as he extols the virtues of a worthy glorious God, summoning his own soul and those of his hearers to joyous merry-making.

The God who Makes-Merry

The God presented in Scripture is clearly a lover of merry-making. The entire year of the life of the people of Israel, as prescribed by God in His instructions to Moses, is punctuated with days and weeks of feasting. Even each week is commanded to culminate with a celebratory meal —the Sabbath Seder and its observances. These always necessitated significant physical preparation from fixing food to washing their bodies and clothing. But of even greater importance would be their mental, emotional and spiritual preparation, through prayer, fasting, separation from normal daily activities, and consecration of themselves unto the pursuit of the knowledge of God and love of neighbor. And at the end of the ensuing feasting and rejoicing, we observe a sense of fullness and satisfaction rather than sorrow and regret.

The opposite is the practice of modern society. Our merry-makings are often celebrations of ourselves and our accomplishments, or of those whom we admire and who are thus extensions of ourselves. Israel’s songs from Moses and Miriam to Deborah and Barak and onward celebrated how God showed Himself strong in their behalf and how He gave them the victory.

Additionally, their celebrations were often preceded by a period of deep introspection and repentance. Fathers of the later church age wisely seized upon this and, in laying out the church year, planned seasons of reflection and fasting for the repentance of sins and acknowledgment of spiritual need prior to its high and holy days. For example, both the celebrations for the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ have been historically preceded by forty-day periods of Lent and Advent,  though the latter has since been shortened to a four-week period.2

It makes us wonder: if we faced and admitted our brokenness and spiritual need before we accepted accolades and made merry over them, would we avoid the painful elevation of those facts afterward, and the yawning awareness that we are empty and not enough? And would we, in seeing ourselves rightly, orient our merry-making around the Divine One and His graciousness and receive the appropriate inner, lasting peace, joy, and comfort of His presence overflowing the compromised cup of our needy hearts.

Light Therapy for Broken Hearts

What would it take for us to have the change of heart that would shape our merry-making in this soul-satisfying way? Especially during the darkening days of fall to winter. How do we get to Christmas with true merry-making in our hearts? One practical antidote from the Halls of Academia on the topic of remedying S.A.D., “light therapy,” might also shed light on the spiritual need.

The apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 4:6:

“For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”(NKJV)

To truly make merry in these dark days, our souls need light just as our physical bodies do—the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the Child in the manger.

 This is not a one-time acknowledgement in the pages of Scripture. The writer of Hebrews portrays Christ receiving His just reward and sitting down at the right hand of the Father in full satisfaction, ready for an all-out celebration: the Marriage Supper of the Lamb mentioned in Jesus’ parables in the Gospels:

“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” (Hebrews 1:1-4 NKJV)

Israel’s sweet Psalmist in Psalms 4:5-8 for blessing on behalf of his people, and the highpoint of his appeal is for God to shine light. The resultant joy is compared to the unbridled celebration that often accompanied the grape and grain harvests of that agrarian culture:

Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say, ‘Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!’ You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep.” (ESV)

 So, it is the Light of the revelation of Christ in the heart, intentionally laid hold of by the grace and volition of faith and pursued in earnest preparatory pilgrimage, that fits us for merry-making at its best, and I believe the writer of the following Psalm would concur:

“Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalms 43:3-5 ESV)

Praying that the Light of the knowledge of the Glory of God shines on you as you head out on the road of that pilgrimage to true merry-making this Advent.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. American Psychiatric Association; Physician Review by Ranna Parekh MD, MPH Jan 2017
  2. Information on the History of Advent taken from The Circle of Seasons- Meeting God in the Church Year; Kimberlee Conway-Ireton, IVP Books, 2008


The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with generous permission for The Cultivating Project. 



 

Denise Stair-Armstrong

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