Cultivating the True Joy of Christmas

Christ is the reason for great joy.

‘Madonna and Child’
‘Madonna and Child’ (photo: Carlo Maratta / Public domain)

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come …” we sing at Christmas. Indeed, we encounter the Christ Child in a special way at the Nativity. 

He is the reason for great joy.

But how do we practically cultivate the true joy of Christmas? 

“That Christmas involves a message of ‘joy’ is anchored in the biblical story of the Nativity itself,” Michael Barber of the Augustine Institute and author of the new book The True Meaning of Christmas: The Birth of Jesus and the Origins of the Season, told the Register via email. “The angel who appears to the shepherd in the field on the night of Jesus’ birth announces: ‘Do not be afraid, for, behold, I bring to you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11).”

“The reason the shepherds are to have ‘joy’ is because a ‘savior’ has been born,” Barber added. 

“The joy of Christmas is bound up with the notion that God has come to save us. Christmas is not joyful, therefore, primarily because of the food we eat or because of the music we hear. Christmas is joyful first and foremost because we recognize that we need to be saved.”

 “This is the ultimate gift of Christmas — the gift of a Savior,” Barber underscored. “We can easily get distracted by other things. Yet this is primary.”

In the 12th century, in one of his Christmas homilies, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a doctor of the Church, spoke similarly about the joy that the birth of Jesus should inspire in the faithful. He said, “Take courage, you who were lost: Jesus comes to seek and save that which was lost. Ye sick, return to health: Christ comes to heal the contrite of heart with the unction of his mercy. Rejoice, all you who desire great things: The Son of God comes down to you, that he may make you the co-heirs of his kingdom.”

Six centuries later, St. John Henry Newman brought out a similar thought about the real joy of Christmas in a homily. Repeating the angel’s words to the shepherds, who were a lowly lot, St. John Henry said the greeting was “to rouse them out of their cold and famished mood into great joy; to teach them that they were objects of God’s love as much as the greatest of men on earth; nay more so, for to them first He had imparted the news of what that night was happening. 

“He appeared as if to show them that God had chosen the poor in this world to be heirs of His kingdom ...”

Barber also finds the Christmas message of “peace” is strongly connected to joy. He cited the angel’s message: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14). The peace “comes to those ‘with whom he is pleased.’” Later, at Jesus’ baptism, God announces his Son, with whom he is “well pleased.” 

“We will find joy and peace at Christmas, then, by learning to become like Christ, specifically, in learning how to humble ourselves and give ourselves away to others,” Barber added.

Newman, in his sermon, called Christmas “a day of joy: It is good to be joyful — it is wrong to be otherwise. For one day we may put off the burden of our polluted consciences and rejoice in the perfections of our Savior Christ, without thinking of ourselves, without thinking of our own miserable uncleanness; but contemplating his glory, his righteousness, his purity, his majesty, his overflowing love. We may rejoice in the Lord, and in all His creatures see Him. We may enjoy His temporal bounty and partake the pleasant things of earth with Him in our thoughts; we may rejoice in our friends for His sake, loving them most especially because He has loved them.”

John Cuddeback, a philosophy professor at Christendom College who blogs at Life-Craft.org, underlines the familial nature of Christmas, rooted in Christ: 

“At Christmas, the ultimate gift of God’s becoming man inspires us to rediscover a truly human life … and to celebrate by rediscovering the simple goods of human shared life: around the fire, reading out loud, dining together; united in gratitude and the joy of life in Christ.”

Christmas parties or get-togethers should be “united by the vision, and the delight, of something greater. Far from pointless, this party provides a pleasure that both cultivates and crowns a good human life.” In a memorable 2012 commentary, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, similarly observed, “Enjoy the special time with your family and friends. Be inspired by the expressions of goodwill and charity that take place this time of the year. But most of all, don’t forget the real reason for Christmas joy. Jesus was born for you, to save you from your sins and to give you the hope of living forever!”

St. Bernard reminded the faithful that the joy of Christmas is not a one-day event: 

“In this day’s most joyful announcement it is not said ‘has been born,’ but ‘is born’ (Luke 2:11); it is not treated as a past event, but as one actually taking place. ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Juda.’ For, as He continues still to be in a manner immolated daily whilst we announce His death, so He seems to be born again while we devoutly commemorate His Nativity. … For He is Emmanuel ‘God with us’ ... ”

Along these lines, Barber highlighted that the manger (Luke 2:10-12) is a feeding trough. “Christ not only comes to us in humble circumstances, he comes to us as food.” 

The Church Fathers saw this verse as having Eucharistic significance, and St. Jerome observed that “Bethlehem” literally means “House of Bread.”

Barber concluded, “The best way to celebrate Christmas is, therefore, to go to ‘Mass.’ Indeed, this is the meaning of the solemnity — ‘Christ’s Mass.’ 

“Every Mass is a kind of ‘Christmas,’ because with each celebration of the Eucharist, we return to the Bread of Life. It is no wonder, then, that we sing the song the angels proclaimed at every Sunday liturgy: ‘Glory to God in the highest!’ (Luke 2:14). So the best way to enter into the joy of Christmas is to enter into the Eucharistic celebration.” 

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.