Week Three: Joy in Journey
“The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be finished,” I’d tell my children when they were younger and facing a disagreeable chore or homework assignment. In some ways, it’s not a bad philosophy. In fact, it can be a good one, and it’s carried me through many tasks— from balancing a checkbook to writing my dissertation. But although it may be a good approach to completing projects, is this wishing away, this counting minutes, hours, days, or even years to propel us toward a certain finish line truly best?
On the one hand, of course not. We understand, at least theoretically, as Ernest Hemmingway noted in The Old Man and the Sea , that “it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Here we understand the importance of noticing and appreciating small details that bring us joy. On the other hand, what happens when the journey itself becomes difficult? Is the good of finishing the journey best?
On the dusty road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary may well have thought so. With every step of the donkey’s hoofs reverberating through her swollen womb, surely Mary experienced a little “wishing away.” Rather sanitized retellings of the first Christmas stand in stark contrast to the realities of harsh dirt roads and the discomfort of struggling to balance on a beast of burden while carrying a child. There was also Mary’s internal turmoil, with every fear and uncertainty about the future replaying in her mind. Still, she obediently persevered, knowing that accomplishing her purpose of giving birth to the Son of God required her to “be there” for every step.
As we read in Scripture, Mary experienced many more difficult moments in her life’s journey. Perhaps, like C.S. Lewis, she may have come to this conclusion: “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us. We are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” (Letters of C. S. Lewis, 1966) But through her continued obedience and persistent presence in the journey, Mary allowed her life to display a pattern of difficulties turned to joy. The shell-shocked “Let it be to me” (Luke 1:38) gave way to a Spirit-infused magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). The frantic searching of her lost little boy made way for Jesus to begin revealing his divine identity and mission. The horrific agony of watching helplessly as her beloved son died on the cross made way for the unfathomable, glorious hope of Jesus’ resurrection. In each case, Mary saw the journey through and passed over good in order to see God’s best, weeping in the night turned to joy in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)
As Christians, we bring to this Advent season the same journey tensions as Mary: simple pleasures, hard work, often great trials. At times, we may be tempted to skip over the pain, reaching instead toward the good ending. But like Mary, if we obediently walk in each moment, allowing our faith to be refined in every situation and confidently remembering that the Hope of Heaven journeys with us, we find God’s best in the resulting, enduring joy. As songwriter Michael Card reminds us:
There is a joy in the journey
— Nance McCown, Ph.D.