When it comes to purchasing Christmas cards, if you are like me, then you look not only at the image on the front of the card but the words printed inside. Recently I stood in the foyer of our local church perusing with other members of the congregation a display of Christmas cards for 2014.
I immediately deleted the majority of the options displayed before me, commenting that, with all integrity, I wouldn’t be able to use them as a Christmas greeting card.
“Why not?” I was asked.
“Because they include the word ‘happy’ or ‘happiness’ as if that is an important Christmas greeting,” I explained.
“Isn’t it?” I was asked.
“No it’s not!” I replied. Those around me seemed bemused. You may also be.
There are two essential problems about the use of the word ‘happy’ in connection with the season of Christmas.
The first is the obvious one that Christmas is simply not a happy time for increasing numbers of people in our society, and to greet someone in that way via a Christmas card is, at best, insensitive.
I recall vividly a pre-Christmas study group I was leading in a retirement community. I invited the group members to nominate something about the gospel stories of the birth of Jesus which for them was significant at this time of the year. As we went around the circle, various comments were made – many about ‘the faith of Mary’, others about ‘the shepherds’, or ‘the wise men’ or ‘the fact that there was no place in the inn’, and so on.
When we got to one particular woman, mournfully she commented (as if she hadn’t heard my question): “Christmas isn’t the same for me since I lost my husband”. I asked: “When did your husband die?”. Noting how present was her grief and so expecting the death to have been very recent, I was struck by her reply when she said, “Seventeen years ago.”
For this ageing woman, and for countless others, Christmas is a catalyst to surface the experiences of grief and sorrow which have wounded us and left their abiding mark on our lives.
That is surely one of the ironies of the Christmas season; its cultural focus on happiness has the effect of highlighting its very opposite – the level of sadness which dwells in so many human hearts. As a corollary, it forces a contrived and dishonest appearance of public enjoyment when, not far beneath the surface, there is unresolved relational conflict or personal grief.
The second, and far more important, reason is that the word ‘happiness’ is simply not a Christian word. The word used by Christians is ‘joy’, and that is a very different sort of word.
While both happiness and sadness are emotions which rise and fall according to circumstance and experience, ‘joy’ is not. Understood in the way in which the Scriptures speak of it and the Christian tradition would define it, rather than being an emotional response to situation or experience, ‘joy’ is the consequence of the actual meaning of the Christmas story. We glimpse it in the extravagant response of the magi on their journey to Bethlehem when they see the star which they are to follow: ‘They rejoiced, exceedingly, with great joy!’
The apostle Paul, while in the most ‘un-happy’ situation of enforced imprisonment, just at a time when he wanted so much to be able to travel around spreading the gospel message to new Christian communities, pens a letter to the church in Philippi.
In it, he commands the Christian community to “be joyful always”. Then, as if they may not take sufficient notice of this command, he repeats it: “Again I say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
There are two striking things to note: first to be joyful is a command to be obeyed, and secondly it is permanent. Both of these make ‘joy’ very different from ‘happiness’ or sadness.
You cannot command happiness and you surely don’t expect it to be permanent. However, with ‘joy’ both of these apply – command and permanence.
In other words, joy is not to be understood as an emotional response to circumstance or situation, and it is not a passing or occasional feeling. How can that be?
For the apostle Paul, the source of the unflappable joy is Jesus Christ … be joyful “in the Lord” always, he says. It is this ‘in the Lord’ which holds the key to the meaning and the source of Christian joy. That leads us to the Christmas story.
At the heart of the Christmas story is that, in Jesus Christ, the One who brought creation into being and breathed humankind into life, and whose love for all creation is immeasurably passionate, entered into the fullness of our human life. Not just one of us, but one with us, and one for us, in such a way that every possible experience of our human life – happy and sad – is embraced in the story of this person.
That is why we cannot confine the Christmas story to the texts about Christ’s birth. None of the so-called ‘Christmas stories’ can be understood as the gospel writers intended unless we read them through to the very end, to include also death and resurrection.
In that sense, perhaps John’s account of Jesus’ birth is the most helpful for us. “The Word became flesh,” says John’s gospel. This doesn’t simply mean that God appeared as a human person, but that the life-giving event of God’s speech (the ‘Word’) which brought creation into being and which empowered the prophetic tradition, has entered into our human life – in all its alienation, brokenness, failure and struggle (‘flesh’).
The climax of this ‘incarnation’ is the moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In that event, properly understood, Jesus faces the worst of all human experiences (even hell itself), and overcomes death with life … for us all. In other words, all human situations of unhappiness – suffering, hell, pain and death – are embraced by this God of life. Rather than such experiences overwhelming us or determining our human identity or destiny, they become the very ingredients for the gift and promise of new life.
For that reason, we rejoice always, because joy becomes the declaration of God’s victory of life over death, and the posture of protest against all that threatens human life.
If we took up this invitation to rejoice, three things would follow: we would be freed from the view that life is meant to be happy, Christmas would become a daily and not just seasonal celebration of joy, and we probably wouldn’t need to send or receive ‘Christmas’ cards.
In my search for a Christmas card, I was simply looking for one which said: Rejoice in the Lord always!
Senior Lecturer in Ministry Studies & Missiology,
Uniting Church Theological College within the United Faculty of Theology
(A College of the University of Divinity)