Whenever I allow myself to get in touch with the real heart of Christmas, beyond all the colored lights and tinsel, I find it overwhelming. The birth of Christ runs so counter to the world’s usual expectations that I hardly know how to respond. There was a cartoon I once came across though, that comes close to how I feel. It shows a minister with a great big grin on his face, holding open his shirt and thrusting out his chest like some kind of superman. On his t-shirt are printed the words: “Joys R Us.” What a great way to embrace the spirit of Christmas.
Now, before you say anything, I know that, according to our Advent Wreath, this is supposed to be the Sunday of Love. We celebrate the four weeks of Advent every year as Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. But I’ve always thought that Love and Joy seem backwards. Joy feels like the most natural response to the end of our waiting. Some of the pre-printed bulletins that we buy have love before joy. And besides, the third candle is pink, and everybody knows pink goes with love. So last week I talked about the love of Mary, and this week I’m talking about the joy of Simeon. I hope that doesn’t just mess up your whole Advent.
Judging by the way this morning’s scripture reads, we can imagine Simeon had some considerable feelings of joy. This short reading from Luke contains the sum total of what we know about Simeon. He was a righteous and devout man who presumably spent much of his time praying in the temple. In his prayers, he had received a vision from the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah; the one whom all of Israel was waiting for. On the day Jesus is brought to the temple for his dedication, Simeon sees the infant Jesus, gathers him up into his arms, and somehow recognizes in this child the fulfillment of God’s promise. He sings out a song of joy, “I have seen God’s salvation. Now I can die in peace.”
Occasionally, at this time of year, the scriptures we use can get a little bit out of order. In our reckoning, Jesus won’t even be born for a couple of days, so it may feel a little curious to talk about his six-week dedication. But, in spite of its being a bit premature on our calendar, the story of Simeon is very appropriate for celebrating the spirit of Joy. His reaction to Jesus is wonderful. He had every reason to feel joyful both in the promise of possessing what he most desired, and in the great good fortune of actually holding Jesus. So, we think of Simeon as richly blessed, and we hold him up as a symbol of the Joy of Christmas. But there’s an important point to be made here. Simeon was not the author of his own joy. Rather, his joy was a response to God’s presence and God’s gift.
We sometimes get those things twisted around. Have you ever noticed how the messages of Christmas often carry a not too subtle suggestion that joy is the “appropriate” emotion for the season? We talk endlessly about how joyful Christmas is supposed to be. We sing out, “Oh be joyful,” as if we had the power to actually make it happen. In my ministry, not a year passes that I don’t end up talking with someone in crisis because this joyful season of Christmas has, for one reason or another, left them out in the cold. That’s a large part of why we offer a Blue Christmas Service every year; for all those who are having a hard time feeling joyful. It’s no fun to find yourself emotionally at odds with Christmas. You end up feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch. Let me ask you a question. Have you ever tried to make yourself feel joyful? Have you ever tried to force yourself into the spirit of this joyful season? Boy I have. Let me tell you, nothing can kill your enjoyment of the holidays faster than trying to manufacture feelings of joy.
What’s more, the world we live in is not at all shy about stepping on joyful feelings when they arise. There is an old story of a French diplomat who had been appointed to a new ambassadorship. He went to make a farewell call on Charles de Gaulle before departing. “Monsieur le President,” he said, “I am filled with joy at my appointment.” De Gaulle looked down his nose at him and replied, “You are a career diplomat. Joy is an inappropriate emotion in your profession.” Ouch! Clearly Charles was not having a good day. Another story tells of a man who had just completed his annual physical exam. The doctor came in with his charts in hand and told him: “Well, there’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.” But what would be the point?
The world can be pretty impatient with real joy. It was Henry David Thoreau who said that the great majority of people, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Unfortunately, he was too often right. For those who don’t have it, joy can be an embarrassment, a discomfort, something to be jealous of or cynical about. Joy in others can easily bring to the surface any lack of joy in our own lives. We don’t have to feel joy’s absencefor very long before the presenceof joy begins to seem like an “inappropriate emotion,” unhealthy for a “completely normal life.”
The problem is, as much as we may want to feel joyful, like Simeon we are not, in fact we cannot be, the authors of our own joy. Joy happens when it happens. We don’t have a lot of control over its times and seasons. We can certainly set up our lives in ways that are open to joy. But trying to force it is probably the quickest way to drive it away.
C.S. Lewis once wrote a wonderful little spiritual autobiography called, “Surprised by Joy.” It tells of a very powerful experience he had when he was about six years old. “It was something quite different from ordinary life,” he said, “and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.’ …Instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described… and then… found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.” He called it Joy, and said it was, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
This feeling of joy became the primary motivation in Lewis’s life for many years. He spent most of his youth and young adulthood chasing after joy, trying to understand it, trying to gain some control over it so that he could make it a regular fixture in his life. But the harder he tried to pin it down, the more it slipped away from him. Eventually Lewis came to a profound realization: “I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster.” He realized that he had a choice: “[He] could open the door or keep it shut; [He] could unbuckle the armor or keep it on.” Once this choice became clear to him, Lewis was finally able to let go. He came to understand that, in a sense, God had been using these feelings of joy, which Lewis thought he desired, to draw him toward his heart’s true desire which lay beyond the feelings. He later wrote, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.” After years of chasing a feeling, he was surprised to discover that it wasn’t the feeling he was after at all. What he had been calling joy turned out to be merely a signpost pointing him toward the glory of God.
Regardless of what we may call it, our deepest desire and our greatest longing is always for God. Calling the Christmas holidays a season of Joy does not mean we will necessarily feel joyful at this time of year. What it means is that Christmas proclaims God’s glory. God is real. God is with us. God cares. Joy is what happens when we take those proclamations into our own hearts and know that they are true, when we suddenly realize that the music, stories and traditions of Christmas all point in the direction of our heart’s greatest desire. When we open our arms, like Simeon, to receive the Christ child, that is when Christmas becomes a season of joy.
One of my favorite movies at this time of year is “Miracle of 34thStreet.” It’s one of those beloved old Christmas stories that only seem to get better with time. Fred, a lawyer played by John Payne, has accepted a highly controversial court case. He is charged with defending a man named Kris Kringle who claims to be Santa Claus. The prosecution argues that, since Santa Claus does not in fact exist. Simply claiming to be the Jolly Old Elf is proof that Kris is crazy. But Fred is convinced, despite everything he knows to be reasonable, that Kris is who he says he is and deserves to be defended.
Right in the middle of all this, an argument takes place between Fred and his fiancée, Doris, who is played by Maureen O’Hara. Doris is a realist. She thinks Fred is making a fool of himself and throwing away their future. Their argument actually captures the crux of the whole story. Fred is trying to convince Doris to relax her common sense, just a little bit, and to have some faith.
Fred: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to… It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.
Doris: Oh Fred you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world and those lovely intangibles are attractive but not worth very much…
Fred: Look Doris, someday you’re going to find out that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover they’re the only things that are worthwhile.”
Kindness, Joy, Love and all the other intangibles that point us toward the Glory of God; that’s really what this season is all about. We are not, we cannot be, the authors of our own Joy. But we can choose to open our hearts to God who is the author of all joy. It may feel as though we are turning the values of commonsense upside down, but that’s what Christmas is for: to remind us that our most cherished desires are more than merely rational. When we embrace the Christ child, like Simeon, our joy bursts forth out of knowing that we too have seen the salvation that God has prepared for all people. Jesus is the light of the gentiles and the glory of the nation of Israel.
May you have a blessed and a joyful Christmas.