On Joy

Le Christ aux outrages, Philippe de Champaigne, 17th c. (Source)

“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal

We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus

Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.[1]

So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.

St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone.[2] If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such.[3] It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.

And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.”[4] But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke.[5] And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.[6]

Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity.[7] Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.”[8] Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.

This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.”[9] Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.

That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.[10]


[1] James 4:4.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.

[3] The root is faith, and the fruits are redemptive suffering and acts of charity.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] John 21:18.

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[8] Psalm 22 (23): 4.

[9] John 3:30.

[10] Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:11; Philippians 1:21

The Five Idols of Christmas

ChristmasScene

A beautiful Christmas scene. (Source)

Five Golden Rings

Christmas is a time of great joy. At the heart of it all is the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Yet often, we let lesser things get in the way of the worship we owe to Him in this privileged season of grace. I don’t believe it would be too much to call these distractions “idols.” As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Idolatry etymologically denotes Divine worship given to an image, but its signification has been extended to all Divine worship given to anyone or anything but the true God.” Many of us unknowingly allow a number of idols into our lives during the holiday season. All of them are good things in themselves, but taken out of proportion, they distort our sense of the feast’s true message as well as our connection with the Living God. I’d like to examine five of these idols, “five golden rings” that often form the chain of our seasonal bondage.

Material Goods

Of all the idols, this one is perhaps the most readily apparent. It seems like each year, we hear new complaints of the commercialization of Christmasonly to watch the process get worse with every passing holiday. Advent washes upon us as a season of cluttered ads rather than prayerful penance. Sacred carols have been reduced to shopping mall muzak. Charlie Brown’s 1965 complaint rings just as true today as it did in the years of the Johnson Administration. For many, Christmas seems to be a time to show off their wealth to the neighbors, to cook and consume lavish amounts of food, or to receive a whole panoply of toys and giftsand little else.

After all, isn’t this what most children look forward to each Christmas? Santa isn’t popular because he’s a jolly old man who likes milk, cookies, and Coca-Cola. He brings gifts! Of course kids love Christmas. The unfortunate thing is that this mentality is extremely hard to break, even for those well advanced in age. Nor does the culture help. After all, Christmas is a nearly half-trillion dollar industry. There’s no reason to think that commercialism in all its forms will go away any time soon.

Happiness

Beneath the idol of material goodswhether that means gifts, food, or all the decorations that beautify our houseshides another idol. Perhaps you’ve seen it elsewhere, at other times and places.

I was blessed enough to go to Disney World a few times as a child. When I later went back as a teenager, though, I noticed something. A kind of frantic, urgent energy pervaded the place. Everyone smiles a bit too widely. Everyone rushes from one amusement to another. And here and there, a tantrum erupts like a tiny pool of scalding water. Why? Because everyone who comes to Disney comes to have a good timeor else. If you don’t enjoy yourself, then something is wrong with you. You must have fun.

The regime of forced fun becomes universal at Christmas time. How many of us come away from the holidays in a state of utter exhaustion? How often have we stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, we’re trying too hard? The Christmas narrative is blissful. But we have substituted the quietly abiding “comfort and joy” of Christ for the plastic and fleeting pleasures of our own culture.

Our fruitless pursuit of happiness is one of the reasons that holiday depression is so rampant. The endless pageants and parades and parties, not to mention all of the work that goes into them, can be such a drain that it leaves us with little energy left for the spiritual life of the holiday. And that’s just when our plans succeed! We’re even more distraught and distracted when things don’t work out as we hoped. How greatly we differ from Mary and Joseph, who dealt with the disappointment of being turned away at the inn with a calm trust in Providence.

Traditions

One thing that bolsters the idol of forced happiness is the idol of tradition. Perhaps more than any other American holiday, Christmas is about the way traditions bring us together. But too often, those traditions can become unbalanced and rigid. Surely we all have one or two thoughts like this upon occasion. If the tree is not up and decorated by a certain day, all is lost! If we don’t make Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, all is lost! If we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf this year, all is lost! And so on. Instead of a time of refreshment, Christmas becomes a daunting list of tasks and chores. Our freedom and ease vanish.

As Catholics, we need to remember that the only really necessary thing is Mass. That is the still point at the base of our lives and holiday. Taking a step back and detaching from our seasonal traditions can be a salutary reminder that we are not in control. God is. And if our traditions don’t serve His glory, then we should rework them and reclaim our freedom. Chances are, we’ll be saner (and happier) if we do so.

Family

Perhaps the easiest idol to miss is the one that often generates all the others: family. Surely, we may think, there can be nothing wrong with putting our families at the center of the holiday? Isn’t being with family one of the greatest and purest joys known to man? And isn’t the meaning of Christmas bound up with God entering into a human family?

These are all natural notions. But the truth is, we often have a disordered affection for our families. This disorder is frequently expressed in counter-intuitive manifestations. The holiday is poisoned by all the evident ways our own families don’t live up to our (possibly quite unrealistic) standards. So many of us use Christmas to penalize those in our families who are different from us, and who thus shatter our little ideal of what family should be. We make Christmas the occasion of settling scores or sniping about our petty differences. Or, on the other hand, we altogether ignore issues that might be very important. A kind of artificial peace may prevail, even though deep cracks open below the surface. But this is not the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.

Families are always sites of intense friction and drama, as even the most cursory review of Western literature shows (not to mention our satires). Making family the center of Christmas merely injects that propensity for drama into a holy day where it doesn’t belong. Moreover, our ideological insistence on making Christmas all about family has been particularly hard on single people. Those with no family are left out in the proverbial, and sometimes literal, cold. One poisonous fruit of humanizing the divine holiday in this way is the terrible loneliness we have needlessly exacerbated for thousands.

Family is a high good, but not the highest good. When we forget that, we do an injustice to God. And we cannot love our families (or our lonely neighbors) properly if we don’t love God first.

Spiritual Consolations

I suspect that most of us idolize family at some level. It’s become such a dominant cultural value that even non-Christians who celebrate Christmas are susceptible to its malignant influence. But one idol may only occur to those who see Christmas as a time of potential spiritual gain.

Every Christian runs the risk of valuing God only insofar as he grants us His gifts. Sometimes, this takes fairly low forms. The Prosperity Gospel, for instance, is essentially a quasi-Christian materialism that equates the love of God with his financial blessings. They turn God into a sugar daddy. More subtly, some of us act like God’s fair-weather friends. We’re perfectly happy offering Him our heart as long as we feel we’re receiving some kind of spiritual consolation. It’s almost as if we think that God owes us something if we keep praying through the season, and we’re unnerved when nothing comes. No one likes aridity in prayer. That feeling can be even harder, and an even greater temptation, when it comes to us at Christmas time.

As Catholics, we shouldn’t worry if Christmas isn’t a time of tremendous spiritual growth. Just because at Christmas you’re not experiencing profound graces or consolations, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing anything wrong. Even a well-kept Advent may not produce discernible feelings of anticipation or contrition. Too much of a focus on the interior life can distract us from the objective glory of the feast.

God has come down to earth in the Incarnation. He has seen fit to take up human nature for our salvation, transfiguring all by the light of His face. And we who were born so many centuries after Him can nevertheless meet that same Incarnate God at the altar. But none of this depends on us. It doesn’t matter what we feel; the marvelous truth of it all is that God has done this work in an entirely gratuitous way.

That is why Christmas Mass is so important. It grounds our devotions in Christ. And as He did at His first coming, He still sweeps away all of our idols from His new home on the altar.

The Eucharistic Alternative

Christmas doesn’t have to be like this. All of the “idols” I have listed above are good in themselves. It is only our inordinate attachment to them that has twisted them into ugly perversions and distractions from the Incarnate God.

True, our culture has pressed many of these idols onto us, or at least exacerbated them. But we are complicit. We go along with the whole rigmarole. We have made these five golden rings into five golden calves. It follows that in our own small ways as Catholics, we can and should resist.

Instead of focusing on material gain, let us contemplate the poverty of the babe at Bethlehem; instead of mindlessly pursuing happiness at all costs, let us seek a healthy and realistic equilibrium; instead of rigidly clinging to our traditions, let us run in the freedom and flexibility of the Gospel; instead of taking a disordered view of our families, let us love them as creatures of the Most High; and instead of pining for a flood of sensible graces, let us be content to dwell adoringly at the side of the Infant God asleep.

It may all be more easily said than done. But the spiritual life is always a challenge for those who truly seek God. And what aid does Our Lord offer us in the Sacraments! If we avail ourselves of confession and the Eucharist, we will have made a very powerful start. Only then, to paraphrase Dickens, may we honor Christmas in our hearts, and keep it all the year.