Imagine that, under the Christmas tree, there’s a gift for you; it’s in a box about the size of a human heart, wrapped in shining bright green and topped with a velvety red bow. It has your name on it, but there’s isn’t another name. The gift is clearly for you, but you’re not quite sure who it’s from. Though there are other present for you, this one intrigues you. When no one is watching, you pick-up the box to feel its weight (it’s surprisingly light), and shake it to see if it makes a sound (it doesn’t, but its silence sounds like music).
On Christmas Day, you open your gifts: a tie, a dozen golf balls, a watch. A scarf, a new purse, a necklace. But, somehow, you can’t quite bring yourself to open the heart-sized box wrapped in green paper with a red bow. It fascinates you, but it somehow makes you anxious. Despite the nudging of your family, you leave the mysterious gift unopened.
During this Advent season, we’re opening the gifts of Christmas: hope, peace, joy, and love—gifts which are ours because of Jesus. I’m at risk for leaving one of them unopened: the gift of joy. I’ve done it before, far too often.
I’ve wondered why.
I don’t think it’s because I am a Grinch. Remember what Dr. Seuss said about him:
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
I don’t hate Christmas, my shoes aren’t tight, and my heart isn’t small. But, even though I am not a full-blown Grinch, it could be that my head hasn’t been screwed on right.
Maybe, I’ve thought that joy would dishonor the pain I see in the world and the hurt I feel hiding just beneath the veneer of Sunday smiles so many of us wear. What right do I have to laughter when there are so many people in tears?
It could be that I’ve wanted to deserve joy—to earn it, rather than to receive it as a free gift of grace. Perhaps, I have taken on gloominess and sadness as a kind of penance—a sentence to serve and a price to pay for my flaws, faults, and failures. How can I be glad when I know, as the familiar prayer puts it, “that I have left undone those things which I ought to have done; and I have done those things which I ought not to have done?”
If it’s true that I resist joy because there is so much pain and hurt in the world or refuse joy because of my own shame, guilt, and pride, then my head really isn’t screwed on right. I’m living as if Christmas hasn’t happened, as if Jesus has not been born into the world.
After all, Jesus shows us the unending presence, the unfailing faithfulness and the unflagging kindness of God. He assures us that God has mercy for our guilt, grace for our shame, and love for our fears. There is nothing in God which keeps us from joy.
In one of his first public statements, Pope Francis said: “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.”
I have had a challenging year: cancer diagnosis and treatment which made it impossible for me to avoid any longer a stark confrontation with my limits. From that confrontation came a jarring awareness of my pervasive brokenness: not only my body, but my mind, heart, and spirit cried out for mercy. I concluded that I need to leave a job and a church I love. I came face-to-face with death. I stand on the threshold of an uncertain future.
And, I have never been surer of the reality of Joy, because I have never been more certain of the truth of the gospel. I know that, at the bottom of everything and at the heart of all things, there is Jesus. Because he has been born, we, too, can be born again and again.
We dare not and we need not leave any of his gifts unopened. Even his joy is for me, for you, for everyone.