Joy

I rambled recently on Facebook about Christmas, and how I feel that I might be a Christmas kind o’gal at heart. I realized tonight what it is that led me to that reflection, what it is that I am experiencing this week: joy!

This has caught me by some surprise, as I hadn’t quite realized I’d been lacking it, but of course: the past few years and Christmasses have been quite hard. Each holiday I feel keenly the absence of one of my dear children at some point. Although not chronically miserable and even at times happy, I had lost joy.

I am a joyful person! I had not realized. Without joy, I am not myself. What a wonderful thing to discover about oneself! But it is not just true of me: it is the same for everyone! Even the most Ebenezer Scroogiest among us!

This is what I love about Christmas: the total abandonment to joy! Untarnished, unblemished by any cynicism, pure, innocent joy!

Clearly, not every Christmas is joyful to all people. One learns as a child, to one’s astonishment, that one can feel quite contrary to the intended spirit of the special occasion being celebrated, just as the weather can be wretched rather than gay. The past few Christmasses, though happy, have been coloured by grief and anxiety, and I cannot describe my heart as having been joyful.

There is a levity to joy. It is this levity that sets it apart from mere happiness, I think. When one is happy, one’s feet, as it were, remain on the ground. When one is joyful, one is levitating, at least interiorly. My favourite depiction of joy in a movie is from the 1951 A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim:

Ebenezer [grumpily]  I don’t deserve to be so happy.

[starts laughing uncontrollably again] 

Ebenezer I can’t help it!

When joyful, we forget ourselves. We lose or renounce the control we typically enforce on our lives: the worries we have about how we might be perceived by others, about whether we are living up to our own standards, about living up to the Idea of Oneself that one has decided one ought to be. If we are uptight, anxious, fearful, or controlling in any way, we cannot be truly joyful. To be joyful, we must lose ourselves in God. And perhaps it will manifest itself in smiles–it certainly does with me, or at least a softening of my face. And there is an excitement in joy, the same sort of excitement the multitude of the heavenly host stirred up when they praised God in the fields, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” When I am joyful, my heart is united with that heavenly host stretched across the vast field, praising God. There is also a deep and intimate aspect to joy, as intimate and ineffable as a mother’s love for her baby.

And true joy is rooted in love. Sometimes we get a taste of joy in our relationships with people. I look upon my husband, or think about a friend who is very close to my heart, and I know joy. The deepest joy, however, is when I turn that gaze towards the Lord in my heart. I smile at Him, knowing He is smiling at me, who is totally unworthy of His smiles.

Joy! Joy is known at Easter, too, but in a more glorious and mature way. Joy at Christmas is so simple, so innocent of suffering albeit wise to it.

I am really quite fortunate to have known joy in my life. I know not everyone has joy in their homes. Perhaps, indeed, most people do not know more than happiness at best. I do not know. My wish is that everyone could know joy, but it is hard to see how one could be truly joyful without knowing Christ. Happy, certainly, but joyful? Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly there are many who know God and find joy in Him. Yet… yet to know God as Christ and Holy Spirit is about as intimate as we mortals can get with the Almighty. There is no other God who became one with us in body and soul, who fused his very being to our matter. This lends an intimacy that cannot otherwise be achieved. It is what marriage is a mere shadow of. And in intimacy, there grows the deepest and the greatest joy.

The most joyful people are the Saints, it has been said to me. I believe it! Who is more free, who is less self-conscious and more God-conscious than a saint? Some are so joyful that their interior levitation has been reflected in physical levitation! A priest my father knew once swiped his foot underneath Padre Pio as the saint was levitating, astounded that a human body should be floating above the ground! Such an amazing and miraculous external reflection of an internal reality!

I am grateful. I am deeply grateful to know joy again. I know that in my life joy comes and goes, but overall, when I am well, I am a joyful person, and I have always wanted to be a joyful person like St Philip Neri. I have prayed that God might grant me the grace of joy, just as I have often prayed that He might grant me the grace of wisdom.

In my joy, I do not forget suffering. I still remember my Matthew. I quickly recall dear friends who are undergoing terrible hidden crucifixions even at this very moment–some, remarkably, enduring these with a continued determination to rejoice in the Lord, God bless them! Rejoice in the Lord always! Newly equipped with joy, however, I can face these sufferings with a levity that is not of this world, a trust that God truly is God, and a good and loving one at that.

For now, my own life is enjoying some reprieve from major grief, and I am taking the time to thank God and to rejoice in my blessings: friendships many times more valuable than gold, family so near to my heart, wonderful children, and a husband I adore the Lord in, for the man is such a good man and such a delight. I am trying to bottle up my joy, label it, and shelve it for a future date when trials strike again, as they are sure to. The joy will still be there, but it will feel more distant, more of a memory than a present reality. And that’s ok. That is how this life is. In the next life, it will be pure joy beyond anything we have ever known in this life. We will all be levitating!

The Forgotten Verses of Christmas Carols

Do you remember the Christmas carol “We Three Kings”? Could you sing it all? For a few years growing up, carolling was a little family tradition, and in high school I sang as part of the choir; thus, Christmas Carols and I became intimately acquainted – and I love them. However, I have a complaint: almost everywhere carols are enjoyed – radio, choirs, and even church – they are enjoyed incompletely. Some discretely drop a verse or two; others are thoroughly bowdlerized. If we’re talking mere Christmas songs, such as “Jingle Bells,” my disappointment is somewhat nostalgic: oh, how sad, we’ve jilted poor Miss Fanny Bright once again. But when it comes to sacred Christmas carols, the disappointment goes much deeper, for we are cutting out beautifully articulated theology that ought to form us as Christians. Take “We Three Kings,” for instance:

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Refrain:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Refrain

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him God Most High.

Refrain

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Refrain

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Earth to Heaven replies.

Refrain

The monologues of each of the magi remind us of the significance of the gifts brought to the Christ Child. My personal favourite verse has always been that of Myrrh; this verse does not allow us to forget the tiny Infant’s fate, it does not allow us to mistakenly think of Christmas as joyful celebration that conveniently forgets the truth of our human existence: that it is one of suffering, that we need a Saviour. Of course, it would be anticlimactic without the next verse of triumph, summarizing the entire carol, and reminding us that Christmas is nothing without Easter.

Here’s another forgotten verse. Do you know which carol it’s from? You’ll probably know by the end:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Yes! “Joy to the World”! It’s the apparently discomforting third verse, using words like “infest” and “curse” and, well, alongside such imagery, even “sin” starts to sound a little undesirable! Couldn’t we just leave it at joy and love, Mr Watts? This third verse renders only too vivid our wretched state (another idea we like to exorcise from a hymn, by the way, namely “Amazing Grace”) and total dependence on Christ for more than cozy feelings – for our redemption!

In any case, even abbreviated carols are still lovely and it’s important to remember that we have been given a reason to rejoice and be merry, but the joy will remain shallow if we forget the cost it came at. Moreover, those who are suffering at Christmas may think this holiday has nothing to offer them, since “it’s all happiness and joy.” On the contrary, the Catholic Church always has Christ’s suffering and death at the forefront of her mind, along with His resurrection. And Christmas Mass is still the Mass: the commemoration of the Last Supper. Perhaps today we ought to be all the more aware of the extent to which He entered into our suffering and abject lowliness: a Child, born in less than favourable circumstances, born with a destiny like ours to suffer and die, but a destiny unlike ours inasmuch as, being perfect, His suffering was all the more acute and totally undeserved. One wonders what the various visitors to the stable saw in that Baby’s eyes. What did the eyes of God look like as a baby? Did He know?