Still satisfied with my clever smuggling into the poem of biblical references and pleased about finding a use for those lovely words “deference” and “aubade,” I was hurt. Sure, I’d used the actual word “joy” liberally—six times in just eight lines—but this was a poem about getting out of bed to greet the morning! Too much joy? How sad.
But that’s just the rub, isn’t it? The morning might be bright and dew kissed, but meaningful response to the human predicament requires more than exuberant reiteration of the word “joy”. And in these times, celebration in general has to give an account of itself: with such a troubling year stacked behind us and with COVID traffic lights ahead, our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany celebrations sit awkwardly amid the present circumstance. There’s something at odds with the moment about insisting on joy and celebration. The question is perhaps quietly voiced but direct: “Don’t you think you can have too much joy?” With all that has gone on and all that the world faces at present, how can we go about singing and speechifying, dancing and giving and feasting and resting and joying in the messiah’s coming?
Seems like Christmas this year is, in any case, a muted affair, taken for granted and decidedly low key. Santa’s pulled his parades. The congregations of local shopping malls are inconstant in their devotion, now pushing toward the shop counters, now backsliding off home away from all the crowds. Even conversation is indistinct, hard of hearing: “Sorry, what was that?”, we ask each other, muffled behind our masks. We take the season for granted, of course: we deserve a break, a breather—we made it to Christmas. Distancing our way around the shop, we hum to ourselves and everyone else: Ce-le-brate good times. Come on. But you’d better hum quietly: as the traffic lights go through their motions and COVID-19 slips among us, no neighbourly minded person can set aside the knowledge of the moment. So is it to be Christmas on the down low, maybe Christmas as quiet escapism or as going through the motions? Mind that joy now.
I suspect it’s because of the moment that I’ve found myself spending time reading an old friend. In the times I’ve spent with him, he’s been locked alone in a Berlin prison cell in 1943, writing letters to his parents and to close friends. It’s not full conversation yet (I look forward to that!), but his words have been an encouragement. Here’s a Christian, a pastor, imprisoned in part for his faith, in the midst of dire days for all, when food was becoming scarce and, each night, death fell from the sky like rain. And now, as he makes the best of things in his cell, Advent approaches, Christmas comes around again. What is it Dietrich Bonhoeffer will have to say about rejoicing, about celebration? Will public scruple and internalised censure temper any seasonal exuberance? Will he remain sober (not too joyful, now) or will he lose his head and devour the parcel sent by his family to alleviate the tension between air raids? He’s well aware of the challenge: “What man is there among us,” Bonhoeffer writes, “who can give himself with an easy conscience to the cultivation of music, friendship, games or happiness?”
Reading between the lines of his letters, Bonhoeffer’s response is to celebrate as fully as circumstances allow and to do so with deepening understanding. I imagine him lingering over the Scriptures in an awareness of the communion of saints, remembering St Paul’s irrepressible encouragement from his Roman prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) And, as I think of Bonhoeffer remembering Paul, Eugene Peterson eyeballs me: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!” (Phil 4:4, The Message). Dietrich picks up his pen: “For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell,” he writes to his parents! “I dare say it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name.”