As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.
During the three hours I was at the fair, I heard unending stories of the challenges that one endures as they return to society after a period of incarceration. I already knew that once marked as a felon, it seems impossible to successfully turn your life around. I knew that society works against you as you are released from prison. I knew that you are stamped with FELON and often struggle finding housing, public assistance, and employment. I knew that you are degraded and considered a second-class citizen. And I knew about the discrimination that entangles it all as African Americans are incarcerated more than six times the rate of Whites.
Somehow, after studying the statistics and learning all about the injustices present in our criminal justice system, it is the personal stories that affect me the most. The numbers provide proof, and facts don’t lie. But stories of lives that have been torn apart bears more truth than all numbers.
I left the event and walked home in the freezing rain. It seemed dramatic but also fitting. I was crying inside as I thought of all of those who will sit in prison this Christmas due to unfair drug sentencing laws. I mourned as I thought of all the innocent men and women who accepted a plea bargain for something they were wrongly accused of just so that they could speed the process along and get back to their families. I grieved for all of those who are imprisoned right now because they suffer from addiction and their will to resist using simply disappeared when tempted. In all of this, I struggled to see joy.
I went to church the next day and my pastor spoke on three things in relation to joy. To experience Christian joy completely in our world that often is pegged with cynicism and evil, we must be settled in our convictions about God. We must believe who God says God is and we must give our whole selves over to that God. Two, we have to retain a quiet confidence in God. We will find joy when we know that the God of all knowledge and understanding is holding us in God’s hands. And third, we must be determined and make the choice to give our praises to God. In times of doubt and hardship, lack of understanding, or regret, joy will only come if we find hope and praise in our Lord who is Jesus Christ.
My eyes were opened and my heart was reminded. In all things, Jesus is our source of joy. In advent, we push aside sorrow and sadness because that is the exact opposite of what Christmas is supposed to be about. But the sadness is real, and the tears are real, and in the end people will still be sitting in prison, alone on Christmas. The comforting part: Jesus understands this sadness. He knows that we can’t push the hurt aside just because we are supposed to be in a season of joy. And in this season of advent, it is essential to recognize the life-giving source of the joy. It is for our own vitality that amongst societal struggles and injustice, we find Jesus. Because one great thing about God and God’s word is that it always tells the truth:
“… God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in [God]. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13 (NLT))
Jessica Breslin is the Mobilizing Assistant at Sojourners.