Joy: Our Chief and Highest End
When they had heard the king, they set out;
and there, ahead of them went the star that they had seen at its rising in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10
The star stopped.
Did they slam into one another like dominoes – camels, gifts, magi all in a scrambled pile before the manger?
They had been seeking joy for so long; and they knew more about traveling than arriving, more about need, than about fulfillment.
The star stopped.
The momentum of the journey, the habit of search, sent us lurching forward even as we beheld the prize. Like ones on a long auto trip riding over the flat stretch of prairie, we lie still at night in our beds feeling ourselves hurtling along phantom highways, our flesh imprinted to motion.
So we arrive at our destination, yet act as if we are still on the way. We shuffle on unsteady legs to the doorway where the light glows, the breath of cattle steams, and something makes a low choking coo. We are overwhelmed with joy, a sublime apprehension of the beauty and perfection of what lies before us under the stars and that we need travel no longer.
It doesn’t get any better than this:
the glad dog bounding gleefully after the yellow cat in the sun
the clutter in the child’s room – a still swirl of hair brushes, dirty socks, ribbons, Tootsie Rolls, and crayons
you and your friend laughing over lunch in the cozy diner
your own wrinkled hand and all it has grasped and caressed, pushed, smoothed and manipulated
You think you need to get busy. Accomplish something today. Wild-eyed John in his camel’s hair is out in the pasture yelling to get with it. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance, you brood of vipers,” he shouts. There is so much to do, so far to go. You think this or that thing has to be done. You think joy is up ahead, when you have reached some goal, satisfied that hunger.
We ought not to pray for things, as to pray to live as though we had the things we pray for. We ought to discover just what it is we think these things will give us, to consider carefully what is the sub text of our desire.
The star stopped.
Did they pile into each other like keystone cops? Was a screeching cosmic brake applied? Or was it so silent as was hardly noticed in the din of rising galaxies and earth teeming with the shrill frenzy of life and death? Perhaps it was a gentle slowing pressure in the heart, an impulse to do something unfamiliar, maybe a sudden press upon the shoulders to bend the knees and halt midway down the stairs absorbed in Joy.
The star stopped and cast its radiance like a neon arrow:
Exit now. Food. Gas. Lodging.
Here this is it. You need go no further.
O immaculate tenderness, O sweet hay in the wind, ground of our beseeching, joy of our desiring, we meet and greet you, kneel to adore and leave our gifts, then what? You are too much for us – you in your completeness, sufficiency. We, overwhelmed with joy, cannot bear the light and back out of the radiant stable to return to the familiar world of anxious fear and endless seeking.
The tension of incompletion fuels our lives and impels our action. Consummation is hard for us to take. People shouldn’t be so happy. “I’m sorry mom, but I just can’t keep my smiles down,” confides the eight year old apologetically on her eagerly awaited trip to the ice skating rink.
If we get too satisfied, won’t there be no striving, no invention, no creativity, no urge to improve, discover, move on? Won’t it be boring? Won’t it be dull?
Our capacity for satisfaction is much less than our capacity for hunger.
Who dares to take a vow of stability?
Who dares declare that this is it
this broken down stable of a life
this very life in shambles shelters Joy?
What most characterizes American culture, poet Richard Wilbur has said, “…is not unity, but rather a disjunction and incoherence aggravated by an intolerable rate of change.”
I gaze in bewildered nostalgia at old photographs of myself and loved ones. Motion is an essential property of things. Everything at one level of its being or another is in motion and change.
Is there anything in the universe that is absolutely still? The earth heaves, crumbles, splits, powders. The flesh pulses, sighs, and dies in the slow dance of decay. Electrons careen around nuclei. Five-flavored quarks flash in kinetic quick-step.
A lot depends on the way the willow leaf turns in the wind and curls to a dry crisp under the bird feeder, but even more depends on someone stopping to notice.
Our awareness gives birth to Christ. Seeing that the star has stopped and climbing down from the camel to kneel before the holy child dwelling in the heart of matter with innocence and salvation is what opens the door for God’s entry into our world.
The child yearns to be noticed. The child waits in the crib of creation for us to stop and pick it up and deliver it to the world by virtue of our own seeing.
Christ is born by our consent. It all depends on someone saying, “Let it be to me according to thy word.”
Then a still small soul magnifies the holy one, and, like a mirrored prism, bends light into multicolored beams of joy.
~ to be continued in next post
Excerpted and adapted from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2000, chapter 23.