Christianity is a faith of great joy. One may think of the much-loved Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World” that celebrates the unrelenting delight that bursts forth into all of Creation as Christ the Lord is born.
One may think of Christmas angels joyously singing praises to God as shepherds watched their flocks by night. One may think of the tears of joy as Mary and Joseph welcomed God’s son into the world in that simple stable of Bethlehem. Joy! It is a central theme of both the season and of Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul knew a lot about joy. Writing from the confines of his prison cell to church he loved deeply, Paul calls the people of God to always rejoice. His bold call is to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and again Paul emphasizes the importance of his call by repeating the command to simply “rejoice.” The foundation of Paul’s exceptional joy is the recognition that God is near. For Paul, as long as God is present — which is truly always — the faithful person can do nothing but rejoice.
This time of the year, the idea of celebrating Joy is not always as easy as Paul makes it sound. In fact, one can read Paul’s prophetic wisdom in Philippians 4:4-9 and see it as a mechanical checklist for happiness. Do this, this, and this, and then you will be happy. Yet, when one attempts the checklist and happiness is fleeting, discouragement quickly replaces the fleetingly positive emotions one genuinely desires.
The reasons are very relevant. This time of the year we place a tremendous amount of stress on ourselves and our families. Holiday gift giving, seasonal celebrations, and the coming together of friends and family can often produce more stress than is generally imagined. Social and media-driven expectations for festive standards often drive very high (or perhaps impossible to achieve) standards of holiday gatherings and purchases.
The stress of grief is also a factor that looms large during the Christmas season as many people think nostalgically back on Christmases past and mourn the absence of a loved one. Sadness and sorrow often dominate the holidays as unmet hopes, expectations, and dreams undermine the joy the season is supposed to offer. This can be made worse through loneliness, isolation, and an unrelenting feeling of being out of step with others in this joyous season.
Adding to the regular seasonal stress, we also live in a highly contentious and anxiety-driven cultural climate. Politics are increasingly fueled in fear, hatred and animosity permeate social media, and the news increasingly focuses on exploitation of the negative and sensationalized outrageous extremes.
Yet, given all that stresses, depresses, and discourages during the holiday season, the scripture boldly proclaims, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for the all the people.” It is none other than the birth of God’s son and the anchor of joy upon which Paul has the heart to joyfully call out from prison and say, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
It is important to recall that “joy” and “happiness” are not the same thing even though people tend to assume otherwise. Happiness is a fleeting emotion that comes and goes. An essential part of human nature is the reality that sometimes we are happy and sometimes we are not. Yet, joy is different. More than mere happiness, joy describes an inner spirit and way of living. One can have joy, even amid sadness, but it is a joy that is rooted in the joyful Spirit of Christ Jesus. To rejoice in God is to live every day encompassed in and radiating true joy.
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