As a kid the one thing that I looked forward to most was the arrival of the Sears Wish Book each fall. This was the Christmas Toy catalogue bar none. Page after page of GI Joes and Lava Lamps and racing car sets and games. Dutifully I would write down each item and page number on a yellow legal pad. This was before sticky notes were invented or the internet and its electronic wish lists. Back then we had to do it all by hand. And we did. I know that I was not the only one keeping a list of what toys I wanted. It was a happy time, anticipating a happy Christmas.
My parents still have home movies of those early Christmases. We weren’t allowed out of our beds until dad had the movie camera set up to record the expressions on our faces. Stockings were left at the foot of our beds full of things to keep us busy from the time that we woke up until a decent hour, say 6AM, perhaps 6:30. When we were little, my older sister was always the first to awaken and she would let the rest of us know that Santa had come and then we would compare stockings and check on mom and dad. Sleeping or pretending to sleep, who knew? My parents seemed less happy at first, during those initial moments of having three very awake kids bouncing on their bed, then they would perk up, usually after dad had a cup of coffee or two.
Do you remember when Christmas was all about being happy?
About shredding wrapping paper and the wonder of gifts or perhaps filming gleeful children or having your family altogether for breakfast or a special dinner? Maybe you completed the scene like we sometimes did by turning the television to one of the TV channels that was broadcasting the Yule log – a picture of a fireplace that never needed tending, where a flame merrily burned while Christmas music played on and on for 24 hours straight. Add a cup of hot coco and I’m not sure we could be happier.
Happy, they say, means pleased or glad.
Maybe Christmas still is about being happy, though tougher this year for many. Trying to keep up with a tougher economy, more stress, more pressure. The things that kids want seemed much more complicated and expensive. More families must share Christmas, the impact of divorce turns Christmas into a negotiation with someone always coming out the loser. The displays in our neighborhood came out early this year, but in general are less than less year. People are cutting back. It’s tougher to keep up with the things that make us happy. And we want to be happy.
I will admit that I had my own father dig the model trains out of the attic so that for the first time I could set them up under our own tree, bringing back a memory from childhood when my Father and I would set up these humongous Lionels, the engine would puff real smoke, as we raced it around the track. I also ditched the fake tree, we call them artificial I suppose, it sounds nicer, doesn’t it? And instead got a real one. No need to spray fake pine scent this year. And even though its shape isn’t as perfect as an artificial tree and I have to vacuum up needles and add water twice a day, it makes me happy. A beautiful sight to behold.
But something was still missing. Being happy takes a lot of work. And then I got to thinking maybe I needed to focus on peacefulness. I got the trains and the tree and even bought paper to write the Christmas letters that may make it out before the seasons of Lent begins (hey, I bought the paper!), but perhaps I needed to put on some Christmas music and light a few nice smelling candles and just sink into a comfy chair and enjoy some peace. Let it wash over me. Carry me away like Calgon (or whatever you add to your own bathwater) to some other place. But that didn’t work either. Which makes sense since as much as we talk about this peaceful Christmas and sing about a peaceful Christmas, I can’t imagine anything less peaceful then giving birth to a child, which is what we are celebrating. The birth of a child, Jesus, the Savior of the world. Mary and Joseph are stuck, probably in a cave, which served as stables back then. Not so sanitary. Her water breaks. Contractions begin and then come closer together. No epidurals. No Demerol. No doctor or nurse or Lamaze coach. We don’t even know if there was a midwife to help out. Just this carpenter named Joseph who was probably good with tools, but who knows if he knew what to do when a head popped out or an umbilical cord or after birth. You see we skip to this peaceful scene of Mary with baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in her arms or lying in the most sanitary and comfortable feeding trough that the world has ever seen. A manger is just a fancy word for feeding trough. The animals are all there and the humans all seem to have bright glowing halos of light over their heads and the shepherd are in awe, silent for the moment, and we even stick the wise men there even though in the story they don’t show up for weeks or months later. It is one peaceful scene. The pain and screaming and sweating and pushing and fear and hard work of the birthing process is skipped over. Mary’s valiant work missed. Men obviously wrote this part. Giving birth is not a peaceful process. What do we think that one moment Mary is there as her water breaks and then next she is holding Jesus without a strand of hair out of place?
So maybe the peaceful thing with quiet and candles and music and even Calgon isn’t the way to Christmas happiness.
Happiness takes a whole lot of work, but Joy, that’s something else altogether. We don’t produce it - it come from outside, from others, and it come to us as a gift. A true gift.
We read: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Good news of great joy.
While happiness is about being pleased or glad, joy is about the prospect of possessing that which one desires. We desire it, but can’t get it on our own. We settle for the struggle for happiness instead. Joy comes from the outside, as gift.
This came home to me the other night at rehearsal for our Christmas Eve program. At some point I looked around and saw children that are growing up here in this faith family. I saw shepherds and dancing wind and Joseph and Mary and I heard the voices of the prophets of old all telling the story: The good news of great joy that is Christ our Lord. When we are a part of something so much greater than ourselves - like we are as we tell and share about Jesus - Joy comes to us, breaks upon us, washes over us and comes to live in our hearts. Receiving the Joy that comes from God in and through Christ Jesus, allowing our hearts to be open for it, to give room for such joy, how can the exhausting pursuit of happiness compare? And that joy is here for us now. Here in its fullness and with its hope and with its promise. Will you make room for such joy in your hearts tonight? Will Joy be birthed in your heart this evening: The true joy that is Christ Jesus?