A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 25, 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Have you ever thought: What do we mean when we say Happy Christmas?
There are three definitions I’d like us to think about today.
The first one is probably what you meant when you said goodbye to your colleagues a few days ago. Unless you’re a real Scrooge you probably said “Happy Christmas mate, have a good one. See you on the other side.” Another example of it would be the Happy Christmas we say when family or friends walk through the door for our annual gathering. “Hey Happy Christmas!” Now is that time of year when we’ll do the things we always do, we’ll have a lovely time. By this I think we mean I hope it’s fun. I hope it’s pleasurable without too much drama. I hope you enjoy it.
The problem with this is what the philosopher Seneca called “thin” happiness, coating an otherwise broken life. I don’t know about you but my Christmas cake did not turn out great this year. But I’ll be ok because you can cover a lot with a thin layer of icing.
This first sort of happiness is not bad but neither does it change us or the world into something better. You can manipulate your brain into being this sort of happy, even an extreme version of it, ecstasy even, as easily as taking a pill. The first century characters in the Christmas story would have thought of Happiness (in Hebrew Chadah – pleasure) linked to another Hebrew Word – Shalom. Shalom implies contentment, joy but it also implies social good. The nightclubs of Tel Aviv don’t sell pills called Shalom because it wouldn’t make sense to Hebrew speakers. Shalom has to have something external. It has to be good for everyone not just in our heads.
So that’s the first kind of happiness: enjoyment, fun.
Then there’s the second kind of happiness; the transformative Happiness in the Christmas story.
It’s a society happiness. It’s about the world being put to rights.
Have you ever noticed; joy isn’t under our control? It’s not something we can conjure up. Even if you know an event is coming that is likely to make you happy, all the family will be around you or perhaps you’ll be heading off on your holidays and leaving your family far behind, joy is never fully guaranteed. The things that give us the most intense joy are usually the things that we were not expecting. Joy is at odds with expectation. Like any child who was longing for one toy for Christmas but got another knows, joy is ruined by expectation. In fact, joy is often most intense when it comes in a moment when we are expecting the opposite of joy.
Mary has a moment of epiphany and joyful clarity when she meets Elizabeth as she is fleeing honour killing.
The Angels suddenly appear to those who were facing one of the harshest existence in their community. For the shepherds living as migrant workers under a brutal regime, an authority figure in the sky was not going to be good news for them. They would be used to keeping their heads down. Like a call to go to the headmaster’s office, something from God for them was not likely to be good. Even if they didn’t fully understand what it would look like, hearing an announcement that God was coming to save them would have been such a relief that their delight would have been through the roof.
Joy comes from outside of us. It is a gift and tends to turn up among people who do not expect it. But what do we do if we are not the people who are on the edge? What do we do if our lives are currently relatively comfortable? How do we know the great joy of the Christmas tidings?
Well, the Christmas tidings also bring comfort.
We’re told Mary treasured up all the good things that happened and pondered them in her heart. Although Joy is always a gift, there is an element of choice. What we enjoy can seem a matter of taste but being a Christian is about developing good taste. We can grow to spot the moments of goodness around us and choose to focus on them.
Compare Mary with Herod, who was so caught up with fear that he didn’t notice the beauty of the stars. The same story, the invitation to hear joyful news of salvation in the scriptures was read out in front of him too but he didn’t pay it any attention. He focussed only on the threats and deficits.
This is something that is decided before a moment of invitation to joy. Herod had decided his posture before this. If the world is a bad place and the Romans or another unjust force are all powerful, then you’re wise to train yourself to always scan for threats. But if there is an all-loving God who is gently reaching out to humanity with gifts of wonder in everyday life, we can train ourselves to start noticing them.
Treasuring is a theological posture – gratitude – delight. Do we look for the abundance or the deficit in the people and situations we come across? It’s not simply positive thinking – it is a statement of belief in God’s power and God’s generosity. If we believe God is generous, life becomes a treasure hunt for the gifts of God. Can we see the smile of our neighbour? Can we see the person doing all they can to survive terrible situations and care for others along the way? Do we have time to enjoy the robin who stops on our windowsill?
There is also a pondering – Mary treasured these things and pondered them in her heart… It’s not what we have that we enjoy but what we value, what we take time to ponder. Sometimes joy is only found through thoughtfulness. Rather than a child tearing off the paper of one present and moving on to another, we can look at the ordinary situations of truth, beauty and meaning in our lives from all angles like they’re a precious jewel till we discover the extraordinary, the delightful in them.
But then there’s a third sort of Happiness.
Surprisingly this takes us back to the beginning of this sermon. Chadah – the Hebrew word for Pleasure – fun. The same word that we said were terribly superficial a few minutes ago. This is the word that Hebrew translations of the New Testament translate the Great Joy of the Angels into. This is also the world that the Old Testament tells us God rejoices over us with. God feels so much pleasure at seeing you, he rejoices with singing, even a little dance. One verse in Zephaniah says God spins like a top over you. You make God happy. You give God pleasure.
Have you ever thought how they might celebrate Christmas in heaven? They’re outside of time but I like to think they wouldn’t miss an opportunity to join us in celebration like this. Do you think they have Presents? Music? Turkey? Perhaps not turkey.
So here’s a thought. If that’s true, that God celebrates Christmas, what if the words “Happy Christmas” are not primarily a statement about you or me. What if they are mostly a statement about God? If God, the most significant being in the universe, the source of everything, is happy how could a statement be more about anyone else? As well as being the most significant person to be happy, God is the happiest person in the universe today. Christmas makes God happy, more happy than anything because God decided that God would base God’s whole existence around being with us. Because of Christmas God fulfilled God’s dream and God will now always be part human.
Unlike taking an ecstasy pill this happiness changes everything in the cosmos. It’s not thin… not icing on an otherwise broken Christmas cake. This is more like the icing on a lemon drizzle cake, it seeps down into the otherwise bland sponge making it all taste of lemon and sugar like pancakes on Pancake Day.
And you can catch this happiness. Anyone who has been welcomed by their dog or a child who loves them after a long absence (like about 40 minutes) knows that. And your dog is nothing to how happy God is to be with you. You can catch God’s happiness. It can make a tangible difference in your life.
More than that, God’s pleasure about you today meant that God sent God’s Spirit to stay with you so we never have to feel isolated from God. God set up the church so we can reach out to each other and be the body of Christ with hands you can shake and look in the eye and hug.
God’s happiness at being with you means that all the evil and death in the world will not have the final word, Jesus will one day return to make everything as it should be and to be with us forever.
To say “Happy Christmas” as a Christian is to make a statement about God.
God is the happiest person in the universe today because Christmas means that God gets to be with you.