by Helen Hull Hitchcock
Joy. If Christmas and all that it means can be summed up in a single word, it is surely joy.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” (Zech 9:9)
“Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:11)
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
You can think of a hundred examples of expressions of Christmas joy especially from Christmas hymns and carols. What these Bible verses and hymn phrases all seem to have in common is that the birth of Christ is a world-changing event that should make everyone in every age extremely happy, cheerful, glad, exultant, gleeful, blissful, ecstatic.
While these emotions are certainly what we may anticipate experiencing (and hope our children will experience when they see the Christmas tree on Christmas morning)‚ doesn’t this limit what joy really means?
The joy at the birth of our savior true Christian joy goes beyond emotions of the moment. It’s not just cheerfulness and excitement, though that can be part of it. It’s something far deeper, I think, and it involves other spiritual realities. True joy is rooted in is dependent on faith, hope, and love. And this joy does not exclude difficulties and suffering.
Realizing this is comforting especially when we are surrounded daily with reports of evils and suffering of all kinds: sickness, poverty, war, senseless murder of innocent children. And include in that list natural disasters like typhoons and hurricanes. Just look at any news outlet and it seems that distress and suffering of all kinds are what human life is all about. And many Christians in the world today suffer persecution even death because of their faith.
How can we “rejoice greatly” in circumstances like these?
In his homily on Gaudete Sunday (“Rejoice” Sunday), Pope Francis reflected on the meaning of Christian joy and its source:
Often in the liturgy [this Sunday] we hear the invitation to rejoice, to be happy. Why? Because the Lord is near. Christmas is near. The Christian message is called “gospel,” that is, “glad tidings,” an announcement of joy for the whole people…
But the joy of the Gospel is not just any joy. It is caused by our finding ourselves embraced and loved by God. As the prophet Isaiah (cf. 35:1-6a, 8a, 10) reminds us, God is He who comes to save us, and give succor especially to the fearful of heart. His coming among us strengthens, solidifies, encourages, lifts up and makes the desert and plain bloom, that is, our life when it becomes arid ... when it lacks the water of the Word of God and His Spirit of love. However great are our limits and our dismay, we are not permitted to be downhearted and vacillating in the face of our infirmities. On the contrary, we are invited to get a grip and straighten our weak knees, to have courage and not be afraid because our God always shows us the greatness of His mercy.…
Christian joy, like hope, has its foundation in God’s fidelity, in the certainty that He always keeps His promises.
Pope Francis stressed that “Those who have met Jesus along the way have experienced a joy that nothing and no one can take away. Jesus Christ is our joy! His faithful love is inexhaustible!”
“Christmas for me is hope and tenderness,” Pope Francis said in an interview a few days later (La Stampa, December 14). “It is the encounter with Jesus” an encounter between God and His people, and it is also a consolation: “a mystery of consolation,” he said.
It seems to me that this is what Pope Francis had in mind in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium The Joy of the Gospel. Pope Francis begins by explaining this joy:
The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept His offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.
This kind of joy is a grace that only comes from God. This joy transcends, supercedes, and underlies all superficial earthly joy and happiness this grace that is given to us makes it possible for us to bear earthly sorrows, distress, sickness, and every evil of this world through the joy of faith, the joy of hope, and most of all the joy of the love of our God and savior, Jesus Christ.
Saint Matthew had this grace in mind when he wrote:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:28-30)
It was this joy and hope that Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Romans many of whom would suffer the most cruel martyrdom, but who went to their deaths singing with joy:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing. (Romans 15:13)
May the joy and hope of Christmas abound in your hearts.
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