Aside from Santa Claus himself, the non-Biblical Christmas protagonist who is probably best known, if not exactly well-loved, is Ebenezer Scrooge. At different times he’s been played by Bill Murray, surrounded by Muppets, and portrayed as a hideous green monster who you would be advised not to touch with a 39.5 foot pole. This character has captured us since the beginning due to the incredible redemption arc of his story, but what is the driving power behind this redemption?
The flaws that Scrooge exhibits before his transformation are pronounced. He is aloof, unkind, and calculating, caring about the profits his business can bring and seemingly nothing else. He is cold, and even cruel. Scrooge captures this whole attitude in his famous expression of, “Bah. Humbug!” with which he ruefully dismisses anybody’s attempt at hope, optimism, or kindness.
“Bah. Humbug!” – not in the cute way we see it on coffee mugs today, but as an overtly cynical expression of joylessness if ever there was one. Perhaps all of Scrooge’s faults could be summarized as pertaining to or issuing from a lack of joy. Conversely, and as seen most clearly in dramatic adaptations, the post-transformation Scrooge is characterized by nothing if not an overflowing abundance of joy, from which his new sense of charity flows. Yes, the ghost of his business partner Jacob Marley and that of Christmas future terrify him, but the spirits that really soften and begin to show his potential for goodness are those of Christmases past and present—those who help him to rediscover the possibility of joy.
Joy is the flavor of Christmas that has left an unmistakable mark on both religious and secular observations. It is also the theme for the third week of Advent, one of two Sundays in the whole year where you might catch your priest wearing pink to Mass (even if he insists the vestments are instead “rose”colored).
While we hope this is a time of rejoicing, we know that even (or especially?) during Christmas and the other winter holidays, many people find heightened suffering instead: whether from family stress, memories of tragedy, or any number of other sources. What if you can’t get in that happy mood for Christmas? Is something wrong with you?
Christ’s coming among us is indeed a source of great joy, but he doesn’t take the pain away all at once. Rather, the promise of the Incarnation is simply that Jesus will remain with us through the pain. At times, that belief may bring great comfort, at other times it may bring less. Regardless, it can remind us of the possibility for joy and suffering to co-exist. After all, whereas happiness is a present experience based on neuro-chemical interactions, joy is both a gift and a decision that comes from knowing that even the deepest pain is temporary. The most captivating smiles I have ever seen have been on faces that can only be described as careworn… not only enduring suffering but transcending it both proves and strengthens the power of joy.
While joy is a far greater good than happiness, we should not dismiss the latter, just as we should neither pursue it at all costs. Pursuing temporary happiness that will lead to greater misery is not a less perfect version of joy, but rather its opposite. Nonetheless, there is no sense in failing to enjoy happiness in its own right. After all, happiness is still a good, just not the greatest good.
All that said, let’s be gentle with those who may seem less than merry as we prepare for Christmas—they may have reasons that go far beyond a “Humbug” attitude. Maybe they can be invited into a more joyful experience, or maybe now is not the time. We all have complex emotional realities. Sometimes I personally try so hard to feel the way I think I should that I don’t notice my actual feelings. Sometimes my emotions don’t come out quite right, and sometimes (or often) I simply present a lower affect than people around me expect. At other times, I can get rather animated in all kinds of ways. I’m not always happy, and neither are you. That doesn’t prevent me from being a person of joy though.
As we enter more deeply into the joy of this season, let us remember the diversity of our emotional realities. Let’s remember that what we think we see in somebody might not be a full reflection of their inner reality. Let’s remember that if there are various ways of expressing happiness, joy can be found in even more surprising places. And let us never take happiness, or joy, for granted, but seek to find ways to grow these in ourselves and others. Every humbug may be another Christmas miracle waiting to happen, but not necessarily one for us to try to force.
As a friend of mine sometimes says, “Happy Almost!”
“Ear candy” and “brain food”, let’s go! Up first is the opening from Godspell, which is much better than I thought it was back when I was in high school. I love how people are called out of their various situations and respond with immediacy. In particular, this is a very fitting choice for this week because the music (and choreography!) transitions quickly from the early Advent themes of preparation into infectious joy. The “brain food” is an opinion piece from National Catholic Reporter and should be good for a debate with the right friends! Essentially, the author is making a case against a militant political correctness that he sees as “joyless” (though he doesn’t use that term), while arguing for the role of comedians to push the boundaries of taste and respectability as long as they are funny. He argues that intolerance of offensive humor will only spark a backlash with unfortunate cultural consequences. Enjoy your argument!
Ear Candy: “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord)” by Godspell cast (film)
Brain Food: “Backlash Is not Welcome; Let Comedians Push, Be Funny” by Michael Sean Winters