Listen to the angel speaking to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” There is a beautiful image of the shepherds in a 15th Century Dutch Book of Hours described by Rosalind Brown: “Eight solid and solemn shepherds hold hands and are obviously doing a circle dance, although two are going in opposite directions and one seems to be standing still. Another shepherd points to heaven, where the words of the angel appear in large letters. Their expressions do not suggest even a glimmer of excitement – these are sturdy, no-nonsense shepherds – but as joy seeps into their souls, their feet cannot help dancing.”
I wonder of this image doesn’t capture something of our own experience of Christmas. Shepherds were a poor, hard-scrabble lot in 1st Century Palestine. They knew that life isn’t always easy. They were familiar with pain and injustice. We may be a bit more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than these ancient rustics, but I suspect our worldliness only makes us more serious and, perhaps, even cynical. But it’s Christmas, and the message of good news seeps in through the cracks in the armature of bad news that encloses us. Joy threatens to fracture our defenses altogether, and our solemn looks are betrayed by the tapping toe on the verge of becoming a full-blown dance.
It is Christmas and – yet again – we are surprised by joy.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of great joy for all people. We find this proclamation of joy to the shepherds near the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, and Luke ends on the same note. After the ascension of the Risen Christ, we are told that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the whole point of his coming is “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” The beginning and end of the Christian life is to enter into that joy.
There is a bottomless wellspring of joy that lies just beneath the surface of our everyday experience. God comes to us in Jesus to remove the barriers that prevent this living water of joy from bursting into our awareness. Joy is not something we make, but something we find; or that finds us, often when we least expect it. We enter into it whenever we touch into the Source that grounds our life. The joy of the Gospel is the discovery of being fully alive in God, and this discovery is possible no matter what our circumstances may be. This is because joy is qualitatively different from mere happiness.
Gerald May describes the difference between happiness and joy in this way:
Happiness has to do with Freud’s old pleasure principle: the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of pain. Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain. Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being. It is one’s response to finding one’s rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness.
In fact, our preoccupation with happiness – with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – may be the principal barrier to our experience of joy. The angels are always telling us, “Don’t be afraid!” because being fully alive requires vulnerability. The path to joy is a process of integration that embraces the whole of life, even the parts we’d rather deny or avoid.
Joy just comes. It doesn’t follow our cultural scripts for how to achieve success or security. It isn’t a reward for good behavior or a prize to be won. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who return to Church – often after many years away – mainly because they are perplexed by an experience of joy that they just can’t explain. Frequently, this joy emerges under very painful circumstances – a searing divorce or recovering from an addiction or the surprising fulfillment of a long unmet spiritual longing.
Jesus described it like this: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.” Our experiences of pain – and pleasure – are simply part of the process of becoming a mature human being, fully alive and whole.
One memorable moment of joy for me was holding the hand of a dying friend, whose face radiated absolute love and acceptance. She knew from her own experience the truth of Jesus’ words, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Happiness can be given and it can be taken away, but joy is the taproot of experience that springs up whenever and wherever it will. It cannot be taken away from us; not even by death.
Pain can be an opening to joy because it strips us of our defenses and makes us vulnerable to our experience in a very direct way, creating the possibility of acute awareness and compassionate responsiveness; but only if it opens us more fully to the whole of life. Thankfully, pain in and of itself is hardly the only opening to the experience joy. Like the mother who endures the pain of child bearing for the sake of life, pain is often born in the service of something much larger – the experience of love. Falling deeply and indelibly in love is another way by which we enter into joy.
Love for another human being, a beloved place, or the creative process of writing or gardening or cooking – any and all such experiences can awaken an awareness of joy. This past Sunday I taught the Godly Play class for our children. The lesson focused on Advent as a time to get ready for the Mystery of Christmas. One of the ways we get ready is to send people Christmas cards, so I invited the children to make Christmas cards. They could decide to whom they would give them.
Two of the kids decided to make a card for each other. They were very focused on the creative process and presented the cards to each other with great respect. Then they gave each other a shy hug and shared a moment of luminous being. When we allow ourselves to be touched, to be moved, perhaps even changed by an encounter with another, we open ourselves to the possibility of joy. All forms of creative love lead us to their Source in the divine eros. Whenever we touch the Source, we know joy.
Although touching the Source can be an ecstatic experience of joy, the kids exchanging Christmas cards points to an abiding joy that comes from the ordinariness of our connection to Being in the patterns of everyday life. The love of spouse or friends or children develops into a rhythm of listening, sharing, and serving that can be profoundly integrating, expanding out to a deep sense of being at home in the world. But it is only as we inhabit these patterns with intention and awareness that they hold open the possibility of joy. Otherwise, we are simply going through the motions.
The best way I know to cultivate openness to the Source is to take time each day just to rest in God’s love. Nothing precludes the experience of joy so much as busyness. We have to cultivate a willingness to slow down, to listen, to pay attention, to notice the flow of joy just beneath the surface of our experience. Contemplative prayer, meditation, call it what you will: it is the royal road to joy in all the great spiritual traditions.
Such joy is not only a personal experience: it is the means of reconciliation and healing in a divided world. It is the foundational experience of reality that connects us. Audre Lorde wisely noted that “The sharing of joy . . . forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.”
We cannot even begin to acknowledge and appreciate our differences, much less heal our sad divisions, until we realize this core truth: we were made for joy – all of us – and this rejoicing knows no boundaries. The song of the angels rings out not just for you and me, but for each and all. The greatest gift that Christians can offer the world is the good news of joy for all people, and the only way we can share this joy is through a renewed experience of it our selves. This Christmas, may the joy of Christ be born anew in our hearts and manifest in our love for one another.
The world needs to see us dancing.
 Luke 2:10.
 Rosalind Brown, “Go out in joy,” Christian Century, December 16, 1998.
 Luke 24:52.
 John 15:11.
 Alexander Schmemann, “The Proclamation of Joy: An Orthodox View,” The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996.
 Gerald May, Will and Spirit, p. 16.
 John 16:21.
 John 16:22.
 Audre Lorde, Sister, Outsider quoted in The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 33.