The third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete or Joy Sunday. Last year, it was emotionally complex, so I wrote a poem. I almost added “naturally” to that sentence, but while poetry used to be a natural way I coped with things, one of the ways trauma impacted me was making it difficult to work with words (and not just with poetry, small talk became more excruciating). There were years that I didn’t write any poetry, much less share it. I shared this poem on Twitter, and I think it was probably the first poem that was more significant than a baiku (a haiku about biking) that I made public post-trauma. I’ve been pondering this poem lately, and decided I would try something new and add more thorough explanation–I don’t intend poetry to be an exercise in obfuscation, but there are frequently elements that aren’t obvious. Context can be important, and as much of my poetry is extremely personal, there is some context that only I possess. First the poem in its entirety:

“Stir up, O Lord, your power” prays the priest.
Yet penitent, let men their songs employ
As fasting mingles with the hope of feast.
This third of Advent’s Sundays is for joy!

This Advent joy comes in complexity–
Never alone, its hand with grief’s entwined
One baby born, another will not be
This happy day still calls sorrow to mind.

We look for flowers even in dry lands,
We cling to promises of all made right.
We wait for justice and strengthen weak hands
While basking in the glow of candlelight.

We sing sweet melodies in haunting keys
While feeling our bruised hearts and feeble knees.


Now to walk through it and add context and explanation. Back to the beginning:

“Stir up, O Lord, your power” prays the priest.
Yet penitent, let men their songs employ
As fasting mingles with the hope of feast.
This third of Advent’s Sundays is for joy!

I mentioned context. This poem is much more likely to make sense to someone in a similar faith tradition, and especially someone who is part of my local church, because of a shared context. In this stanza, I refer to some of the liturgical elements particular to that Sunday.

The collect the priest used that morning at church:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

I made use of poetic license to rearrange the reference so the rhythm worked.

Advent is a complicated season. On the one hand, there is joyful anticipation of the comings of Christ, but it is also a season of penitent preparation. We drop the “alleluias” from our liturgy, and fasting is encouraged. The Sundays have themes that seem to have a contrasting positivity: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Some years, the happiness may be dominant. In 2020, I’m feeling the heaviness. Advent is a bit messy.

Last year, our church had its annual (in non-pandemic years) Lessons and Carols service that Sunday. “Let men their songs employ” is a line from one of the carols we sang, “Joy to the World”. I’ve always loved the assonance of those lyrics (it galls me when I hear that “men” changed to “all” not because I’m offended by gender neutrality but because of the way it changes the sound), and combining it with “Yet penitent” let me extend that assonance.

This Advent joy comes in complexity–
Never alone, its hand with grief’s entwined
One baby born, another will not be
This happy day still calls sorrow to mind.

When poetry is spoken aloud (which it is meant to be), you can’t see the punctuation, so the phrase “This Advent joy comes in complexity” has some ambiguity. On the one hand, it could be speaking of joy particular to Advent (as the punctuation indicates), but there is also the possibility that I am saying that in this particular Advent, the joy is complex. I do mean both.

Last year, Joy Sunday fell on December 15th. December 15th, 2010 was the day I started my first known miscarriage. I don’t remember the date of every grief, but this date comes two days before my wedding anniversary, so it has a memory hook.

But the day was not just a sad one! Last year, a baby in our church was born. This poem embraces ambiguity. Advent looks forward to the past birth of Baby Jesus, so while I say “one baby born”, I actually had two in mind, and people who did not share the context of the baby in our congregation could still make some reasonable sense of the poem.

Personally, it was also a huge day for me.

When we moved to Boise four years ago, I suffered from a deep depression. Church has always been important to Michael and me. As long as we have known each other, we’ve been serving, frequently together. We met when Michael was doing tech at our college ministry’s freshman group. When we found our Boise church (Holy Trinity), I was not in a condition to serve–I was struggling to show up Sunday mornings and look people in the eye even though I generally considered Eucharist the high point of my week.

Over years, we were slowly returning to serving at church–helping to set up the space once a month, then offering to host a small group in our home (not leading one, though we had done so before, because we weren’t ready for that). It felt like a big step when I volunteered to read Scripture. While clearly, reading Scripture isn’t about me, it was personally significant that I had gone from a place where I had trouble looking other members of the church in the eye to being willing to stand up front and be seen. December 15th was the first Sunday I was assigned to read the text for church in Boise. I thought it went well, and it made me happy to see this evidence of healing. So beyond the thematic call for joy, it was personally a happy day!

The word “still” is multifaceted here. I primarily meant that line to mean that even though there was much to celebrate that day, grief remains. The happiness doesn’t cancel out the sorrow. But it also has an element of lingering–I’m still dealing with griefs from years ago. There is a sense in which that is appropriate, and I might notice it every December 15th. If it was limited to December 15th, I’d probably be okay with it, but there is definitely part of me that is frustrated by how much of my winter brain is occupied with my sorrow. At times, sorrow feels like a houseguest that has overstayed its welcome, and I haven’t figured out how to kick it out. There is an element of frustration in that still. This past year has included some intense trauma therapy, and one of the things I’ve had to work on is being patient and gentle with myself, recognizing that given that I routinely experienced some seasonal depression before the miscarriage ten years ago, and my experience with three winter pregnancy losses (not just the first or the final traumatic third), feeling sad in winter isn’t some unreasonable failure on my part.

Regarding the line “Never alone, its hand with grief’s entwined”–while writing, I was thinking of joy and grief walking hand in hand together. One thing I have learned of grief is that our sadness speaks of something good. We ache precisely because there are good things in the world. Sometimes it is tangible–I loved this person, and they died, so I am sad at their absence. Sometimes it is more nebulous–I had this dream that might have been, that perhaps others have experienced, and I’m sad that I haven’t seen it realized. Having experienced some deep losses, joy can be a bit scary. Will happiness now be sorrow later?

We look for flowers even in dry lands,
We cling to promises of all made right.
We wait for justice and strengthen weak hands
While basking in the glow of candlelight.

We sing sweet melodies in haunting keys
While feeling our bruised hearts and feeble knees.

The end is less personal, and I don’t think requires as much explanation.

I mentioned that I read the scripture that morning at church. The passage was Isaiah 35:1-10. The images of flowers in dry lands, strengthening weak hands, and feeble knees all come from that text.

The glow of candlelight and “sweet melodies in haunting keys” come from the Lessons and Carols experience. I don’t have the program from Lessons and Carols, but I’d be surprised if we didn’t sing at least one of O Come, O Come Emmanuel and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. There is something beautiful in the sad sounds of minor keys.