We often dumb down joy to equal happiness. But when the question, “What brought you joy today?” surfaces at the dinner table, the answer requires a deeper consideration. Perhaps we don’t think much about joy when we live in an affluent culture where so many things are accessible that make us happy. Drinking a pumpkin-spiced latte makes me happy, but it doesn’t bring joy. Apologies to Marie Kondo, but cleaning my closet does not spark joy. Joy emanates from a deeper place within. It’s more than a thing or an action. Joy is fleeting, even ephemeral and can feel hindered by the hard life we live on Earth. Is there true joy this side of heaven? Can joy last or even be repeated?
My examination of every description of joy in the Old and New Testaments inspired this word picture representation of the things the Bible connects to joy. Joy is loud. We sing. We shout. We process in celebration. We dance. Our hearts thrill. We share. Some of these actions come across as trite, like the kind of words you’d see on a Hobby Lobby holiday sign that screams JOY! Others we don’t associate with joy, such as the joy that comes by suffering or in times of trouble (1 Peter 4:13).
Joy as a Feast
Of all of these helpful associations, the one that tackled my imagination was the word “feast.” For a family-tradition zealot, my holidays are a time of family-feasting favorites. We tramp out Grandma and Grandpa’s china and try to cook up everyone’s sentimental attachments. (Go ahead, ask me for my father-in-law’s four onion gratin recipe which is beyond amazing, and I’ll send it to you.) My dad loved to say, “It’s a feast!” really loudly at the table even though he didn’t do any of the work getting it ready. Honoring traditions can make us joyful in the tried and true ways that withstand the test of time, and deliver holiday flair. In some way, Grams and Gramps are still with us if we are powering up their favorite dishes and recounting their memory while clinking our glasses together.
But biblical feasting that brings joy looks different. Yes, there is some grand event that calls for celebration with “rich food and sweet drinks.” But who is included in the feast is not what we usually put on our grocery list. In the Festival of the Harvest found in Deuteronomy 16:15, God’s people are told to feast with their “sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites from your towns and the foreigners, orphans and widows who live among you.” Don’t we all know foreigners, orphans, and widows whom we could invite to our feast?
Once Nehemiah finished rebuilding the wall in 445 B.C. he told the clans to “share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared…for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” An interesting aspect of this feast was that the people not only shared gifts of food but they celebrated with “great joy because they heard God’s words and understood them” (Nehemiah 8:12). How often do we read God’s Word as a part of a feast, discuss and understand it?
Sharing the Table
In Acts 2 the early church community “shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2: 44-46). It’s hard for our family to imagine the level of joy these new believers shared together because we have not sold everything we have for the sake of others. But we have had the chance to share meals with great joy and generosity. A unique example of this occurred in 2001 when the Lost Boys of Sudan came to the U.S. and four of them came to our home for Christmas. I tried to make them an authentic Sudanese feast and did pretty well, but failed on the okra. Sautéed in butter, crispy okra is not the slimy stewed-in-tomatoes okra that they love. They tried to be polite about it, but couldn’t help crunching down the okra with a few snickering glances. We all laughed together in awe of their stories acclimating to life in a very foreign country, one that had flush toilets and bathtubs with a shower, and beds that were not on the ground. We gave them an American flag and they insisted on having their picture taken holding the flag high and peeking their heads over the top stripe.
This feast brought our family joy because it was full of newborn laughter with young men from a different culture whom we loved and cared for and they loved us back. We’ll never forget their dramatic gestures as they played Slap Jack or called our youngest son, “Butter” because he had blond hair. There is a deep level of sharing at this kind of table that is messy and different, but rich in unifying community.
It’s hard to break out of the Jell-O mold of our holiday feasts, and seek something broader and welcoming of the stranger. It can be overwhelming to try and add a new dimension to the feast when we already suffer from a deficit of joy.
Someone is missing at the table, someone has recently died, someone couldn’t come home or chose not to, but the Psalms tell us that King David felt that way too, and he asked the Lord to renew his joy. “Oh give me back my joy again, you have broken me, now let me rejoice” (Psalm 51:8). The Lord is faithful and he desires to fill us with joy, even joy that “overflows” (John 15:11). All we have to do is ask him. A blessed feast to you all!