One recent Christmas, I was delayed in Hamilton, and I got to Ballarat a little later than usual. For the whole two hour drive, I was looking forward to the family Christmas.
But when I arrived, things soured. They had opened the presents without me! I grabbed a beer, and engaged in conversation, but only half-heartedly. I gave a lot of one-word answers, and clung to my sullen disagreeability.
But as the Christmas pudding was lit, and the cheers went up, I took a step back and examined the situation. What was wrong with me? I’d been looking forward to this all day! I was surrounded by people I love, and I was dragging them down.
So I snapped out of it. It took a lot of effort — I had to smile through gritted teeth! — but I pretended to be cheerful. It took a while, but of course eventually I was actually as happy as everyone around me.
It’s only human for us to fall into bad moods. There’s nothings sinful about it. It’s perfectly natural. But we are called to something greater. Something supernatural. The joy of the Gospel.
The prayers and readings of the third Sunday of Advent focus on this:
“Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of the Lord’s nativity.”
“I exult for you in the Lord.”
“My souls rejoices in my God.”
“Be happy at all times.”
I think this joy we pray for today — the joy of the Gospel — isn’t just a mood. It’s not the same as happiness. Christian joy is a decision. Sometimes, it’s a struggle.
It could well be a struggle at Mass this Christmas. Especially if it’s hot and sticky, we regulars can easily resent the ‘Christmas invasion.’ We’ll see people whom we won’t see again for a whole year. They waltz in, they take our seats, they chat through Mass, the kids run wild, and prayerful recollection is impossible.
I’m exaggerating a little, but you get my drift. There’s good reason to be miserable, or at least annoyed, at Christmas Mass. And that’s precisely what Old Nick wants. Sullen faces; telling glares; spiritual desert. That‘s what he wants the Christmas crowd to experience at church.
But with God’s help, we can turn that on its head. When we foster the joy of Gospel, which is alive in our hearts right now, we can radiate a peace the world cannot give. It’s the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is irresistibly attractive.
I’m not only talking about Christmas Mass of course. I’m talking about those daily instances, when we must choose to frown or smile.
Maybe the secret to all this is humility. Chesterton famously observed that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
More profound is his claim that too much concern for one’s ego, or pride, leads to “the falsification of fact by the introduction of self.” It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it? Ego falsifies the facts by introducing the self.
Joy is closely related to laughter. Chesterton was good at that too. Here’s another quote from him: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they’re generally the same people!”