Happiness and joy. Those are two words that get tossed around quite a bit at this time of year and certainly with good reason. The birth of Christ is definitely something to celebrate.
For most people, these two words are pretty similar in meaning. And while in some ways they are, in other ways they’re really not. You see, happiness is more of a fleeting emotion. It depends on outside forces to determine whether or not we are happy. For example, we’re happy when we get the gift we wanted or when our team wins the big game. But on the flip side, when things don’t go our way, our happiness disappears.
Joy, however, is something much deeper and more sustainable. Joy is an emotion that reminds us that after all of the wrapping paper has been thrown away and the decorations packed up for next year, we are still left with the enduring joy of Christ’s birth. Joy is what carries us through the rest of the year, providing a stable platform amid the ebbs and flows of happy times. It comes from inside of us, whereas happiness depends on what’s going on around us.
It is, according to the Letter to the Galatians (5:22–23), one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
What Is Perfect Joy?
One person who truly understood the concept of joy was St. Francis. Once, in a conversation with Brother Leo, Francis explained what he called “perfect joy.” As the story goes, as the two walked in the winter cold, Francis repeatedly told Leo examples of what perfect joy is not. For example, he said, “If the friars were to make the lame to walk, if they should make straight the crooked, chase away demons, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, and, what is even a far greater work, if they should raise the dead after four days, write that this would not be perfect joy.”
Eventually, Brother Leo asked Francis to explain what he meant by perfect joy. Francis responded by describing the possibility where they would arrive at their destination after walking in the rain and cold and, upon presenting themselves as fellow brethren, were accused of lying and turned away.
That, Francis said, would be perfect joy. He went on to add, “And if we knock again, and the porter comes out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, ‘Begone, miserable robbers, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!’ If we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.”
A Wider Lens
That concept of perfect joy probably seems confusing and counterintuitive to most of us. How could we find joy in such an unpleasant situation? We can because joy comes from inside us. Joy reminds us that even when we are devoid of happiness, God is still with us and will always be there. That is joy.
Pope Francis expanded on that concept in a 2018 homily: “Joy does not mean living from laugh to laugh. No, it’s not that. Joy is not entertainment. No, it’s not that. It is something else. Christian joy is peace, peace that is deeply rooted, peace in the heart, the peace that only God can give. This is Christian joy. It is not easy to foster this joy.”
In that context, suddenly the phrase joy to the world at Christmas takes on a much greater meaning. It reminds us that at Jesus’ birth we are given the gift of God with us at all times. This month, as we celebrate Christmas and all of its festivities, let us recall that while the happiness of the season will fade, the joy of it will not. Let us allow that joy—the joy of Christ’s birth and his love—to sustain us throughout the year to come.