It really struck me this week as I was considering how joy works that there are so many images in our popular culture (especially from my favorite classic Christmas films) that give us impressions of what true Christmas joy is. The trouble is, in some manner they all fall short of the mark.
Remember Buddy, from the movie Elf? Buddy is the incarnation of someone who is “over the top” with Christmas cheer. His fixation on Christmas is so overwhelming that he almost starts a riot at a department store when he discovers that the man claiming to be St. Nick is nothing but a fraud and (in Buddy’s words) “sits on a throne of lies”! But though Buddy’s over-the-top Christmas enthusiasm is out of place with those around him, he saves the day when he leads even cynical New Yorkers to believe that Santa could be real. In the end, their “Christmas spirit” powers the real Santa’s sleigh and saves the day! The moral of the story: don’t be afraid to embrace your inner elf. To be joyful is to revel in all the trappings (Christmas cards, Christmas cookies…you get the idea) that only come around once a year.
Then there is George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. George, a family guy who has always worked hard to do the right thing, falls into desperate financial trouble through no fault of his own. When he resolves to take his own life by jumping off of a bridge, his guardian angel Clarence prevents him from doing so and shows George what the world would have been like without him in it. By the end of the film, George’s friends and family have rallied to his side and raised the cash that George lost…toasting him as “the richest man in town.” In this case the moral of the story encompasses more than just Christmas: family and friends are where true riches are found. Joy, the film seems to say, is found in people, not in things.
Each traditional holiday film has something to say about the joy of Christmas. But you don’t need me to tell you that each leaves a little something missing. What happens when the trappings of Christmas we’ve come to love are different, no longer there…or others simply don’t join in when we sing? What happens when the people we love are no longer with us at Christmas to remind us how truly rich we are? Thankfully, St. Paul has the last word about joy, for you and me. He writes these words, meaningfully, from a prison cell, a place where joy was supposed to be in short supply: “Rejoice in the Lord always! … By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God…will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Peace with God and the peace of God, brought by a tiny baby and confirmed by a man who rose to life after dying on a cross is at the heart of true, lasting joy. Happiness and “holiday spirit” are here today—gone tomorrow. The countercultural joy arising from the peace and the forgiveness of sins that only Jesus brings, is so much more!
My favorite character of all is the Grinch in the story How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Grinch has heard the same carols too many times and has looked on as others, warm and well-fed, gather in their homes to take part in Christmas joy together. He resolves to rob them of their joy, taking their trees, their presents, and even their “roast beast.” But he discovers that Christmas comes anyway! “Maybe Christmas … doesn’t come from a store,” he wonders to himself. “Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Our joy is an attitude coming out of a peace which is the gift of One “who unimaginably transcends the worst things even as he unimaginably transcends the best” (Frederick Buechner). Let’s prepare to celebrate Christmas again! Maranatha! Come, Lord [Jesus]!