The third Sunday of Advent focuses on joy, but what is joy and where can it be found?
Like many experiences in life joy is easier to identify than define, but perhaps it would be accurate to say that joy is what makes us smile, laugh and sometimes cry from an overwhelming sense of gladness.
If this, in any way, captures the meaning of joy, it would be wise to ask where joy can be found.
While many avenues promise joy, a prominent pathway we encounter at this time of the year is the giving and receiving of gifts.
While sales were down this year, the money spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday still reveals the popularity of this path.
Each year, thousands of people set up chairs, cover themselves in blankets and sleeping bags, and even pitch tents outside stores waiting for the doors to open to the promise of joy through low prices.
What I find troubling is not that people choose to sleep outside stores to ensure that they get the best deal on items.
What troubles me is that a homeless person who tried to camp outside a store on any other night of the week would either get run off or arrested.
It is not only acceptable, but also commonplace (and seemingly encouraged by retailers) for shoppers to camp outside stores on Thanksgiving night.
By contrast, it is not only unacceptable, but also illegal in most places for someone without a home to engage in precisely the same activity as thousands of shoppers – namely, sleeping outside a store.
To me this reveals something troubling about what our society finds acceptable and unacceptable, especially when access to low-income housing and shelter space are not adequate in many cities to provide sufficient space for those without homes.
That said, let me be clear: I’m not denigrating gift giving, and I’ve already purchased presents for most my family as I do every year.
In my mind, there is nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas through giving and receiving gifts. But this requires qualification.
Gift giving is a wonderful practice so long as we remember that presents do not bring lasting joy or happiness, cannot substitute for quality time with friends and family, and should not cause us to forget or neglect those in need.
Sadly, I believe our social customs around this time of year can easily lead us to affirm the benefits of gift giving without qualification.
Two biblical texts often read during Advent can help us reorient our perspectives and encourage us to find ways to change systems that often treat the “haves” much better and more favorably than the “have nots.”
In Isaiah 61, the prophet proclaims the glad, joyous news of broken hearts healed, captives set free, prisoners released and the mournful comforted.
In Luke 1, after arriving at her cousin Elizabeth’s home, Mary proclaims the joyous news of the lowly being uplifted and the hungry being fed alongside the less than joyous news for the powerful who would be dethroned and the wealthy who would be sent away empty.
I would imagine that prophets like Isaiah and Mary would take issue with the fact that persons without homes are forbidden to sleep outside a store because they are judged to have insufficient financial resources while persons with homes are encouraged to do so because they are judged as having sufficient income to buy products.
Joy is found, according to these texts, when wholeness and wellness come to those who lack basic necessities and whose life is less than what it could be and should be.
It also comes when people are set free from captivity, which is important given how often we fail to realize our captivity to perspectives and practices detrimental to our personal and societal well-being.
The joy we find celebrated in these Advent texts is the result of finding a new way of life together that seeks after and works for the good of all, ensuring that everyone’s basic, essential needs are being met.
For some, the need is obvious – adequate food or water, warm clothing or a place to sleep. For others, the need is less obvious – a listening ear, a compassionate smile or a welcoming presence.
For all of us, the need is to be liberated from those systems, structures and ideologies that blind us to the common good and prevent us from experiencing lasting joy.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.