John Ruskin was an English writer and philosopher who lived in the 1800s. He was critical of the Victorian Christians of his time, and wrote that they “dwell only on the duty of self-denial but exhibit not the duty of delight.”
Ruskin’s duty of delight has grabbed me and helps me in these challenging times. It is relevant not only to dour Victorians; it has been a favorite phrase of people who work for justice in hard circumstances, including the Catholic activist leader Dorothy Day.
We light Advent candles of hope, peace, joy and love, knowing that around the world, people are being pummeled with all manner of tragedy. There is no end to the painful images and realities that the world offers up to us. If we are awake and open-hearted, we feel the pain.
This year I am newly awake to the reality that Jesus was born in Palestine under the occupation of an empire. And yet, throughout the Gospel stories of the Nativity, in the face of empire, people seek the light. They sing, they dance, they seek out friends and visit each other, they boldly proclaim their faith, they worship and they have babies.
The world is also delightful. Somehow, we have to hold all of this together.
Take these lines from a poem by Jack Gilbert:
. . . . The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. . . .
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. . . . We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
. . . .
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
This Christmas, of all Christmases, we must look for the light. We must risk delight! We accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world, while proclaiming a God who:
has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.
Who has shown the strength of her arm,
Who has scattered the proud in their conceit.
Who has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
Who has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
Our Goshen College community shares the delightful good fortune of teaching and learning, being with our students as they are coming into themselves and their God-given powers. At Goshen College, there will be music despite everything – indeed, in response to everything!
I’ll end with the words of yet one more poet, Jeanne Lohmann:
Stunned by the astonishing mix in this uneasy world
That plunges in a single day from despair
To hope and back again, I commend my life
To Ruskin’s difficult duty of delight,
And to that most beautiful form of courage,
To be happy.
Merry, merry Christmas!