Christmas and joy go together. As the celebration of the Lord’s birth draws near, we sing the time-honored hymn, “Joy to the World.” We send and receive greeting cards that proclaim Christmas joy. Most enjoy taking part in Christmas parties, dinners, family gatherings and the like. Many families look forward to Mass at Christmas. Yes, Christmas is a season of rejoicing.
But not everyone shares in this spirit of joy. A few days ago, I spoke with a successful youth minister. I had hoped that perhaps she’d tell me about a well-attended retreat or a service project that made a difference. Instead, she reminded me of the struggles so many young people face. Some of the young people to whom she ministers measure their self-worth by the number of “likes” they receive on social media. When their posts fail to get likes or shares or they are bullied, their self-worth plummets. More than a few young people, she told me, live on the edge of despair. Some harbor thoughts of suicide and plan for it. It seems that these young people have yet to experience what true joy really is.
The absence of joy manifests itself in other, less drastic ways. When I walk my dog around Baltimore, I meet people who are friendly and happy but also people who are positively glum – walking with their heads down, frowns on their faces, earbuds in place, disengaged from the world around them. As I listened to my friend who works with young people and see so many unhappy people walking the streets, I am reminded of the insightful comment of Pope St. Paul VI, who wrote: “Technological society has succeeded in multiplying opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy” (“Gaudete in Domino,” I, p. 10). Thus, songs and greetings of joy and festive occasions coupled with beautiful liturgies ring hollow – unless true joy dwells in our hearts.
Those who possess true joy are not deterred by their problems, by distress or by deprivation – their own or that of others. I know and admire many priests, deacons, religious and members of the laity who minister in some of the most challenged areas. Every day they encounter and seek to address heartbreaking human need and suffering, yet they never fail to bring a supernatural joy to their ministry. They also have a way of discovering among those living in dire situations a joy and hope that does not have its origin in this world.
At Christmas we celebrate a supreme joy which indeed does not originate in this world. It is the joyful news which the Angel Gabriel first revealed to the Blessed Virgin Mary when he said, “Behold, you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and called the Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:31-32). When Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and celebrated with her the Good News of salvation, her pure and sinless heart joyfully sang the praises of God, “The Lord has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:49). So too on that first Christmas night, the sky was lit with God’s glory and the angels brought tidings of joy to all the earth: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14).
Joy is neither mere pleasure nor a fleeting emotion but a conviction, wrought in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that God the Father loves us so much that he sent us his Son to draw near to us and to share our humanity, with its burden of sin, precisely to redeem us of sin, to forgive us, and to transfigure our lives after the pattern of his own glory. To believe, to hope, to receive that divine gift is that joy that endures not merely amid earth’s travails but unto eternity.
Let us not imagine that this joy which has its origin in God is out of reach. It is actually meant for the humble of heart. It is the joy of the children who were blessed by Jesus. It is the joy of Martha, Mary and Lazarus who welcomed Jesus into their home. It is the joy of the publican who was forgiven, the shepherd who found his lost sheep, the woman who found her coin, the thief who found forgiveness at the moment of death.
May you and yours have a most joyful Christmas!
For more on Advent in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, click here.