Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Every year at Christmas we hear about the angel appearing to the shepherds, amidst their lowly work, who says to them:
Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
After which the choirs of angels sing out their praise to God. Despite the encouragement of the angel, I personally find it hard to move so suddenly from the busy tasks of preparing for Christmas and my daily life into the joy of the arrival of the big day. While the angel tells us that there is great joy to be had for all people, I have always wondered how to enter into that joy.
When I reflect on the Christmas story, on what it actually means for God to become man, I realize that I have been missing something crucial in my understanding of the joy of Christmas. I was trying to find the joy in the moment of Christmas, when I should have been seeing that the joy of Christmas could be a part of my daily life. While sin is the cause of our sorrow here on earth, the joy of Christmas comes from the fact that God has made it possible for all human beings, if we choose to repent and to accept his mercy, to be united to God. This joy, which is a taste of eternal happiness, is only possible for us if we choose to unite our hearts and wills to God.
The Nativity story in the Gospels is filled with people submitted themselves to God’s will with love and trust. Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men all make way with humble obedience for God Made Flesh. Their faith and obedience, which helped make possible the salvation of the world, stand in stark contrast to the first human act of disobedience which led to all of our suffering.
Our disobedience and pride led to the unhappiness of humanity. We see that all the way back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the fruit because they wanted to grasp at being made like God. (Genesis 3:5) They were sent out of God’s presence and condemned to toil daily for their food and needs. (Genesis 3:18-19) We inherit this Original Sin, and while we are cleansed of it at Baptism, we still have the daily struggle.
Yet, the joy of the Incarnation lies in an act of obedience and humility. For Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him.” (Philippians 2:6-9) The very one who was God did not grasp at his own glory, but chose to empty himself out in love.
Scripture reminds us that we cannot have the joy of the Incarnation without remembering the suffering of Christ’s death. His birth points to his death which points to his Resurrection. While we celebrate the Incarnation in this Christmas season, we celebrate it because we know of what is to come and what God made possible for us by becoming man.
If we are to be united to Christ with joy, we have to first be united to his humility. We have to empty ourselves out as he did and be willing to embrace the sufferings that God allows in our lives even as we do his will. Most of the time that means all that is required us is to choose to do willingly and joyfully the daily tasks of our lives, and to do them with love. In all vocations the daily, mundane tasks are often the hardest thing to bear.
Yet, we can have great hope, for through his humbling of himself to become man, God has made all suffering, from the most mundane acts of human existence to the most painful losses into opportunities to receive grace. We no longer have to experience our daily toil as a joyless struggle, but can imitate Christ in all that we do. He knew the struggle of everyday life and he knew the feeling of loss, and he has made this toil an occasion of joy. God united himself to our human existence so that we could be united even in this life to his Divinity. If our greatest joy is union with God, then the Incarnation should make us more joyful in that we can begin to have union in this life. We can have that joy everyday.
Our Infant Savior lying in the manger, the shepherds kneeling before him, and his holy parents at his side give us the perfect example of how to have the great joy of Christmas. We must simply, humbly, and lovingly do the tasks to which God has called us to all the while making way in our hearts for the Infant King. He does not ask more than that. He just asks that we do it for him.