The angels said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for I am bringing good news of good news of great joy…”
In December 1979, the Iranian Foreign Ministry invited three American religious leaders, among them William Sloane Coffin of Riverside Church in New York City, to celebrate Christmas with the 53 hostages being held captive in the American Embassy of Tehran. The hostage crisis had begun on November 4th of that year, and no one had any idea how long it would last. For the hostages and their families, each day was an eternity and Christmas Day was fast approaching.
The religious leaders were only allowed to meet with the hostages in groups of three or four. The first four that William Sloane Coffin met with were Marines. Coffin hugged them and they hugged back, which he took as a good sign. The men took turns picking carols to sing. Coffin opened a Bible to the Gospel of Luke and passed the book around, and each read portions of the Christmas story.
Then Coffin spoke to them of the first Christmas. “It was cold,” he said, “dark, dank, and lonely. Joseph must have been tired, Mary exhausted. We read, ‘There was no room for them in the inn,’ but of course there was. There was room in the inn, but no one would move over for a poor, pregnant woman. So they ended up in a stable and he who was to be the bread of life for all humankind was laid in the feedbox of animals.” “It was a terrible Christmas,” Coffin said again. “But do you see what I’m getting at? God’s love can change no place into some place, just as the love of God changes a person who feels like a nobody into a somebody.” As he said goodbye, he said, “I know this is not a happy Christmas for you. But it might well be the most meaningful.” (William Sloane Coffin, “Report From Tehran,” in The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 275)
As Christmas draws near, we all do well to remember the difference between happiness and meaning, and between happiness and one of the fruits of meaning, which is joy. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone enduring great hardship to be happy at Christmas. But it is not outside the realm of possibility to be graced by moments of deep meaning and joy, even as hearts are breaking.
For joy does not depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it like happiness, something to be pursued. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, an accident, or even in a jail cell.
Joy is God’s gift, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world. Last week, I met with people who work every day in one of the harshest places imaginable. There was certainly a no-nonsense air about them, their eyes conveyed both sadness and fatigue. They were also among the most joyful people I have met in a long time, and it was clear that there was no place they would rather be.
Yesterday, I shared lunch with survivors of an apartment fire in Southeast Washington, D.C. They had lost everything, and were now living apart from one another across the city. Thanks to the hospitality of four of our D.C. South congregations, they were reunited for the first time. Despite all they had endured, and are enduring still, many of their faces reflected a quiet joy. So, too, did those working to offer a bit of kindness to strangers. What better way to celebrate the gift of Christmas?
The Scriptures speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. “Do not be afraid,” the angels to frightened shepherds in a field, “for I bring you good news of great joy.” That is the hope, and promise, of Christmas.
To be sure, I wish happiness for those I love this Christmas. As your bishop, I wish happiness for you. But this may or not be a happy Christmas for any of us, depending on circumstances beyond our control, and so my deeper prayer is for all to experience something of joy this Christmas, and for us to share in God’s work of bringing joy to others.
I daresay that most people reading these words are hard at work now, striving to make Christmas an occasion of both happiness and joy for others. Thank you, for all you are and do. May you, especially, receive the gift of joy God has for you. Remember that joy can come in the happiest of times or in the loneliest hour. Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos—it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.