Surprised by joy
It's Christmas season. Houses are decorated, trees are up, cards mailed, presents wrapped, baking and travel arrangements made, and parties thrown and attend. The expectation is that we are all supposed to be pretty happy during this time of the year.
When we revisit the first Christmas, we notice that most people weren't happy. Mary and Joseph are in a bad place. They are living away from family and they have to put their newborn son in a manger because there is no room for them in the inn. The Wise Men are completely lost and will miss the birth by many months. And the shepherds have to work on Christmas Eve tending a bunch of dumb, smelly sheep.
The happiness for which we are searching, especially at Christmas, ends with the discovery that no matter what you do, where you go, or how hard you work, nothing much changes. Once in a while we have a "Happy Holiday" like what it says on the Hallmark card. But then what? Like the shepherds, when Christmas is over, we go back to those sheep. You tell yourself that this is really not a bad life. It is so much better than what Mary and Joseph experienced. You really can't complain. There may be other moments of happiness in your life.
Christmas promises so much more. This isn't a holiday from our work. It is a holy day of divine visitation. The angel says to the shepherd, "I am bringing you good news of great joy..." Happiness is something we can achieve, sometimes, for a short time. Joy is something the Lord gives to us. It changes us forever.
We all have an empty manger in our lives. No amount of effort or hard work is ever going to fill it. Maybe your empty manger is love, fulfilling work, or good health. Maybe you have grown accustomed to living without those things. And maybe all your fuss over the holidays is a way of distracting yourself from how empty your manger is.
When Christ enters your empty manger through faith in him, he doesn't give you love, fulfillment at work, or the good health you were missing. He gives you God. And now that you can commune with God you begin to discover a joy that frees you from all those things that you felt could bring you happiness. The only people who can enjoy loving relationships are those who don't need to be in love with anyone but God. The only people who enjoy going to work are those who don't expect work to be their source of joy. The only people who can handle inevitable losses of health are those who have found joy they can never lose.
I suppose there would be a whole lot more peace on Earth and good will toward men and women if we all stopped our fearful, driven, grab-all-we can pursuit of happiness. Then we may realize that the joy we most want cannot be achieved but only born in our souls through faith and trust in God.
The Rev. Jeff Winter is pastor at Faith Community Church, Edgartown.