‘Tis the season to be merry- tra la la la la- la la la la!’
Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy…’
The angel of the Lord
‘To miss the joy is to miss all’
Robert Louis Stevenson
Like many people, I both love and loathe Christmas. The celebration of the turning point in cosmic history has become buried under an avalanche of trivia, stuff and nonsense. One of my bugbears is Christmas greetings. I don’t want just a ‘Merry Christmas’ or even a ‘Happy Christmas’. ‘Merry’ is just too frivolous and ‘happy’ too flimsy. We need something far more euphoric, something like the French ‘Joyeux Noel’, joyful birth. Pope Francis hits the nail on the head: ‘Christmas is joy, religious joy, an inner joy of light and peace’.
But what on earth is ‘joy’?
Joy is a funny old fox. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling of great pleasure and happiness’ but this is far too insipid. I can turn on pleasure quite easily by opening the fridge door or putting on a DVD. The deeper experience that is happiness is trickier to manufacture but if life is going well and my pleasures outweigh my pains then I can expect to feel happy as long as circumstances continue to go my way.
Something within us knows that joy is far more intense, spiritual even, than mere pleasure or happiness. It’s not something that we can create on a whim. Even if life has all its ducks in a row, joy may still elude us. Sometimes the most joyful people are going through a nightmare and are joyful despite their woes.
Defining the indefinable
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf defines joy as ‘an emotional attunement between the self and the world- usually a small portion of it- experienced as blessing’. It has, he argues, a number of characteristics:
- Joy has an ‘intentional object’ that I perceive as worthy of delight. This object may be something quite unspectacular (beating a worthy opponent at sport) but if I perceive the object or event as momentous I will experience it as joyful.
- A ‘hedonic response’ i.e. a strong positive emotional reaction. This can be euphoric (England winning the Ashes, if you’re a cricket fan) or a calm delight (enjoying a magnificent sunset). It is not just a feeling (like my feet being tickled) but also an active emotional response in which I am fully engaged.
- Joy has an un-earned quality. It gives us a sense of being blessed. A thoughtful and surprising gift from my wife, given after I’ve behaved poorly, would qualify. Warm sunshine after days of cold and murk; waking to the sun sparkling on a glittering snow-scape: these, to me, have an element of unearned and undeserved grace.
- Joy seeks company. Like seed it multiplies when scattered abroad. True joy has an infectious quality, irresistible to anyone in the vicinity.
- Joy can be experienced in the midst of suffering. Paul exclaimed that ‘in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds’ 2 Cor. 7:4. A funeral can be a mixture of the grief of loss but also joy over a life well lived.
Surprised by joy
The New Testament counts joy among the fruit of the Spirit. The disciples were ‘filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit’ in Acts 13:52. If God is the greatest good and the perfection of love then ‘in his presence is fullness of joy’ Psalm 16:11. The closer we get to God the greater capacity there must be for joy as God must be the most joyful being conceivable.
It follows that the closer we get to something or someone who reflects even a smidgeon of the divine likeness, there will always be the potential for joy. When a baby is born we shouldn’t be surprised that joy is a common response. Likewise, falling in love will be an occasion for rejoicing. Any one of us, made in Gods image, can reflect some spark of the divine that, caught in the right light, can become a source of joy.
The ripples that spread out from Gods beauty, love and goodness can be encountered in all that he has made. For many, including myself, nature is a constant source of joy and delight. But this only works if we recognise it as a wonder and a gift. If it’s just an object for scientific study with no intrinsic value other than its usefulness to us, then we will never see the magic.
And we shouldn’t be surprised if our experience of art or any creative beauty sparks joy. So often we are surprised by joy when listening to music, contemplating a painting or enjoying a powerful film. Pleasure metamorphoses into delight as something from another world awakens desire with a deep ache and longing. We are, I believe, in those enchanted moments, breaking through the thin veneer of the physical and transient and, momentarily, touching the real and eternal.
Getting serious about joy
In the New Testament and in the Hebrew Scriptures, joy is not simply something that happens to us: it is also a moral obligation. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice’ urges Paul (Phil. 4:4), echoing the constant refrain of the Psalms. To find ourselves in Gods presence whether we are worshipping in church, celebrating with loved ones or just enjoying the sunshine and to ‘miss the joy’ as Robert Louis Stevenson puts it, ‘is to miss all’.
One of the saddest sights in London is to walk across London Bridge on a glorious sunny morning during the rush hour. You will see hundreds of stony-faced city workers, marching resolutely towards their desks, eyes forward and minds elsewhere. There is sunlight dancing upon the river, the heavens are declaring the glory of God and the angels are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ but no one sees, no one pauses and no one en-joys.
And its just as easy to ‘miss the joy’ at Christmas too, if we’re not careful. Joy is a spiritual discipline requiring concentration and deliberate engagement.
Six steps to heaven
If we want to get the best out of our Christmas dinner it will require planning, preparation and lots of hard work. Ensuring that all the family and relatives have suitable cards and presents will require forethought and perseverance. And if we are going to enter deeply into the ‘joy of the Lord’ this Christmas we will need to train our spiritual muscles in the delightful but painstaking discipline of rejoicing.
Here are some suggestions:
- Company. ‘Rejoice with me’ is the gospel imperative. Joy shared is joy multiplied. It’s a great time for family gatherings but also for welcoming in the stranger, the lonely, the awkward and odd. As the scripture says: ‘it’s more blessed (and brings greater joy) to give than to receive’ Acts 20:35 Amp.
- Stillness. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ Psalm 46:10. I love to sit quietly beside the Christmas tree, with no one else awake or around, and allow the enchantment to slip into my soul. I want the deeper meanings behind all that surrounds me; presents, fairy lights, holly, the Tree, mistletoe etc. to spark joy. All is gift; all is grace, all is Love poured out; ‘it will flame out, like shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins puts it.
- Perception. Christmas is, I believe, what the Celtic Christian tradition calls a ‘thin place’. It’s a time when the distance between heaven and earth, God and man, becomes ‘thin’ and tantalisingly close. As we recognize this ‘thinness’ we can look more eagerly for the divine imprint of joy: in children’s excited faces, in the familiar Christmas stories, in singing the ancient carols, in the giving and receiving of presents- in fact in almost anything that draws our attention away from ourselves.
- Memory. Most of us have all kinds of magical memories from Christmas’s past. Recalling these in personal reflection, in conversation with others or offered as praise to God can become a sacramental experience when the past has power to reignite joy in the present. The familiar rituals and much-loved objects of the season can evoke, through memory, the real presence of loved ones, precious experiences and forgotten spiritual encounters with the Baby of Bethlehem.
- Worship. The Christmas story is full of spontaneous and exuberant worship. Many of the main characters (the angels, Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah for example) break forth in poetry and praise. Joy, according to Miroslav Volf, requires an ‘intentional object’. I find great pleasure in listening to a live performance of the Messiah but for a truly joyful experience I need the company of ardent worshipers not just adept performers. Giving praise for the most praiseworthy Gift in human history evokes what Peter described as ‘an inexpressible and glorious joy’ 1 Peter 1:8.
- Ritual. Much of the magic of Christmas comes from the repetitive nature of shared ritual and tradition. Whether it is a Nativity service, a traditional Christmas meal, decorating the tree or watching ‘The Sound of Music’ on TV there are countless opportunities for creating personal or family ‘rites of the season’. Christmas is about incarnation- the eternal breaking into history, the sublime into the ordinary- and when we enter fully into the seasonal rites and ceremonies we too can be caught up into the ‘realms of glory’. When we let faith and not skepticism direct our gaze, the most simple of our Christmas customs can point us towards the holy, the mysterious and the truly wonder-full.
If not now, then when?
And so, this Christmas season, lets not settle for merely a ‘merry’ or ‘jolly’ or ‘happy’ Christmas. God, as CS Lewis puts it, offers us ‘infinite joy’ and at Christmas time the offer becomes urgent, up close and personal.
A ‘joyous Christmas’ to you all!