Many years ago, my family bought me a sweatshirt that pictured a grim and sour-looking man who stood, arms folded tightly against his chest, in a shadowy corner at a Christmas party. Below the picture was this caption: “Mr. Bah-Humbug.” It’s not a good sign when your family gives you that kind of gift—or if they call you “Scrooge” or “Grinch” or “Eeyore.” It’s not a good sign but there is good news: the Advent and Christmas seasons invite us to experience joy.
It’s one of life’s most urgent invitations. We were made for joy. As theologian Lewis Smedes once said, “To miss out on joy is to miss out on the reason for your existence.”
Joylessness is a serious threat to our well-being. It turns us in on ourselves, rivets our attention to pain, and narrows our world to the dimensions of our hurt. It dulls our senses, drains the Technicolor wonder out of life, and turns life’s mysteries into burdens rather than adventures.
Joylessness is also dangerous, because it puts us at risk for self-destructive behavior. Joylessness makes us vulnerable to anything which promises to help us forget our trouble even if it is only for a while. In the absence of true and lasting joy, we’ll settle for temporary relief, momentary distraction, and fleeting pleasure. Most addictions develop because people are trying to feed an inner emptiness that only love can satisfy, and because they are trying to lift themselves out of the melancholy sadness they feel.
Joy matters, because without it, we won’t become the people God dreams we will become. That is why, among other reasons, C. S. Lewis called joy “the serious business of heaven.”
Some of us think that joy is impossible, because life is not going as we hoped it would. Maybe we live with chronic pain, or with a loved one who’s in trouble more than out of it, or with grief over a hard loss, or with crushing feelings of failure, or with an overwhelming sense of disappointment.
Joy is not a human achievement; it’s a divine gift. We experience joy when we know that Love accompanies us wherever we go, even into the darkest and hardest places; when Mercy holds us in our brokenness, gentles our fear, and shares our pain; when Wonder sweeps us up and carries us, for a time, above the veil of trouble; and when Grace welcomes us to the home we always longed to call our own.
We can nurture the gift of joy by practicing the discipline of celebration. Even in life’s toughest seasons, there are often simple pleasures to enjoy, but some of us hold ourselves back from them. It’s as if we’re staging a kind of protest against the things that are wrong with life by refusing to savor the things that are good. We consign ourselves to a dreary life if we postpone celebration until a better time. I love this old rabbinical saying: “We shall be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy.”
Frederick Buechner said: “The world is full of suffering indeed, and to turn our backs on it is to work a terrible unkindness maybe almost more on ourselves than on the world. But life indeed is also to be enjoyed. I suspect that may even be the whole point of it” (Telling Secrets). He’s right. Christmas tells us that Joy is why we are here. It is why Jesus came.